When you're still being dragged along in the gnarly wake of the Great Recession, bristling with the splinters of the housing bust and other flotsam of the financial meltdown, it's hard to see much of a future, much less big ships on the horizon. But they are out there, or on their way — big ships, wider than ever, carrying cargo up the coast, up the Chesapeake to the Port of Baltimore.
In a couple of years, a wider Panama Canal will open for business. The wider canal will mean larger ships — new megaships — making the run from Asia to the East Coast, instead of always stopping in Pacific ports.
So, in a display of stunning foresight and optimism, the state of Maryland made a 50-year deal with a big company, Ports America, to manage the Seagirt Marine Terminal in Dundalk and to construct a new 50-foot berth to accommodate those extra-large vessels on the horizon. They want to make Baltimore one of only two Atlantic Coast ports that can handle the bigger container ships coming up the coast after the Panama widening project.
Some visionaries are looking even beyond that. They're looking at that sprawling, industrial land to the south of Dundalk. That's Sparrows Point, once the big shoulders of steel-making around here, and a place where thousands of workers earned a nice living. Of course, we all know the rest of the story: Global competition, loss of contracts for the production of steel, layoffs and more layoffs and a long good-bye to all that. There's still some steel-making down at The Point, of course, but the workforce is a small fraction of what it was in the old days.
That doesn't have to be a permanent condition. The workforce on The Point could grow again.
There's a lot of land down there, and it catches the eye of anyone who's driving over the Key Bridge or looking at satellite images of the Port of Baltimore. Look at a map. Track the route these big, new ships will take on the way to Seagirt, and you'll see that they'll pass right by Sparrows Point. So, why not stop there? Once the Panama Canal goes extra large, why couldn't there be another 50-foot berth at Sparrows Point to accommodate more vessels? If the busy Port of Baltimore needs room to grow, why not grow on The Point?
Of course, there's been talk, at fairly low volume, about an industrial renaissance on The Point for several years. Turns out, there actually are people thinking about this and strategizing. I spoke with one of them the other day, Dan Gunderson, the economic development chief for Baltimore County. I was following up on a conversation I'd had with Kevin Kamenetz, in his first year as county executive. Mr. Kamenetz had remarked about the possibilities of encouraging new shipping-related business on The Point.
Mr. Gunderson said Job No. 1 is making sure the businesses already in place there, employing a few thousand people, stay in place. But, looking ahead, he sees the grand and real possibility of Sparrows Point becoming part of both the robust shipping and resurgent manufacturing in Baltimore's port.
"Obviously, manufacturing has taken a hit over the years," Mr. Gunderson said. "But we've reached a point where there's a rethinking about the role of manufacturing." He's not speaking of the big-shouldered industry that once dominated Sparrows Point but of a new generation of specialized manufacturing that's highly technical and innovative, requiring educated and skilled workers. The Point could be a place where new companies assemble and ship their products. The area, Mr. Gunderson pointed out, has excellent access to the interstate highway system. "New manufacturers can get their products to market from there easily," he said.
There's still a shipyard at The Point, too, with one of the largest drydocks on the East Coast, and there are about 175 dormant acres nearby. Mr. Gunderson says the land could be reclaimed and redeveloped. A renewed Sparrows Point could play an important role in the Port of Baltimore's bigger, wider future. In the long wake of the Great Recession, it's good to cling to such possibilities and keep an eye on the horizon.
Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday with Dan Rodricks on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.