Mercedes increasing imports at port

No. 1 vehicle importer here may up figure from 90,000 to as high as 160,000

October 22, 2004|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

Mercedes-Benz USA LLC, already the single-biggest car brand imported through the port of Baltimore, plans to sign a 10-year lease Monday for a large waterfront lot in Dundalk so it can increase the number of trucks and luxury automobiles brought here by ship.

The German manufacturer now imports about 90,000 cars and trucks a year via smaller lots in Dundalk and Belcamp. The vehicles are then shipped by truck and rail to Midwest and East Coast dealerships.

At a signing ceremony with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. scheduled for Monday, port officials are expected to predict the larger, state-owned lot will increase Mercedes' annual import numbers to 160,000 over the life of the lease.

The company also plans to build a multimillion-dollar facility to prepare cars for shipment.

The company said a small number of workers would be added to the 150 full and part-time employees moving to the new lot. The Mercedes contract is currently responsible directly or indirectly for several hundred port jobs, port officials say.

"Mercedes' business is large and important to us because of the jobs and volume they ship, but also because of the ripple effect they have on other operations," said Mel Bafford, general manager for automobiles at the Maryland Port Administration, which oversees the state's public terminals.

The port began to aggressively pursue auto shipments in 1996 and has seen the number of vehicles rise an average of 11 percent a year. Officials say Baltimore's location as the western-most East Coast port gives it an edge with manufacturers trying to reach or export from the Midwest.

Last year, the port imported and exported about 500,000 cars, making Baltimore the No. 2 East Coast port for cars and trucks behind New York.

Mercedes said more land was needed closer to the ships if it was to bring more cars through the state.

During the 10-year lease, Mercedes will gradually take over the 100-acre lot in Dundalk. The property was formerly leased by Toyota, which no longer imports through Baltimore. The increase in Mercedes over time should make up for the loss of about 46,000 Toyotas annually, port officials said.

The Mercedes announcement comes on the heels of another contract signed by a private automobile handler in Baltimore to import about 51,000 Jaguars over the next three years. Jaguar had pulled out several years ago.

Unlike Jaguar, owned by Ford Motor Co., Mercedes said U.S. sales are rising. A record 219,000 new Mercedes vehicles were sold in 2003 in the United States.

"It makes perfect sense to move closer to the port," said Jim Resnick, a Mercedes spokesman. "We're investing in the property, including a multi-million [dollar] prep center. ... We plan to be there a while."

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