Movie producer is refusing to leave on-the-waterfront past

July 12, 2005|By BILL ATKINSON

WHEN James G. Robinson was a young man, he used to sleep at the foot of the Dundalk Marine Terminal in a beat-up construction trailer waiting to clean the new cars that rolled off ships from around the world.

Two sawhorses, a piece of plywood and his Army sleeping bag formed his bed.

"I had a plug-in heater. It was cold as hell in the wintertime," said Robinson, who went on to become a successful movie producer.

(He founded Morgan Creek Productions, which has produced a bevy of movies including, A League of Their Own; The Last of the Mohicans and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.)

Despite his success in the motion picture business, Robinson, 69, has always had a love affair with the port. His feelings are quickly souring.

He's in a nasty dispute with the Maryland Port Administration over the location of Premiere Automotive Services Inc., the company he started in 1964 and still oversees.

Premiere paints and repairs industrial vehicles like tractors and combines, installs parts, stores and cleans them.

The fight threatens to put his company out of business and 37 workers on the street if a resolution can't be reached, he claims.

He claims, in a complaint filed last month in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, that the port administration is trying to evict him from the spot that he has occupied for 41 years. It also wants him to tear down his building, which houses his offices, body shop, paint shop and wash line.

The port administration has already signed a lease with a competitor, the Pasha Group, a global shipper and auto processor. What makes the story stranger is that Pasha Group was found guilty last year of jacking up prices on shipments for the Defense Department. The company was suspended from doing business with the military.

Robinson has sued the port administration and in April put his company in Chapter 11 bankruptcy so that Premier could continue to operate at the company's long-time home, Lot 90.

"I never have been treated badly on the waterfront in 41 years," Robinson said. "It is ludicrous. This is a classic."

The administration's attorney, Peter Taliaferro, declined to comment because the case is in litigation.

The state, according to court documents, is arguing that Premier is trying to gain control of sovereign state land. And despite several attempts to enter into a lease agreement with Premier, Robinson has refused. (He says the leases offered are unfair and would hurt his business.)

"They refused to sign a contract for the last three years," said one observer familiar with the dispute. "They were given many offers to do it and they didn't. Frankly, they sat on their can."

The port has been the subject of controversy in recent months, criticized for lax security after Sept. 11, 2001, and for a public fracas between longtime port administrator James White and his boss, Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan. The spat led Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to replace White this spring with F. Brooks Royster III, a maritime industry executive.

The port administration's mission, it says in court documents, is to spur commerce to benefit Marylanders.

To that end, it wants long-term tenants that "provide stable port revenue," court documents say. It says it has the power to relocate tenants and set performance goals.

Robinson says the business, whose day-to-day operations are run by one of his sons, Mike Robinson, and Bob Harrison, is doing well. The bankruptcy filing was designed to short-circuit the port administration's move to oust the company.

Premier has a number of clients, including Case New Holland, America McCormick International and Hino Diesel Truck, according to court documents.

Last year, Premier's gross income was $3.2 million, according to bankruptcy documents. The company is on roughly the same pace this year, it says.

With all of the pressure why wouldn't Robinson get out of the business and forget the hassle? He has made millions over his lifetime in the automobile business and as a movie producer.

In the interview he talked excitedly about two movies he has coming out: Two for the Money and The Good Shepherd.

His answer to the question was simple. "The waterfront has been good to me. Everything started on the waterfront. I want to keep it going."

Bill Atkinson's column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. Contact him at 410-332-6961 or by e-mail at bill.atkinson@balt

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