Starting in September, Mazdas will be zooming through the port of Baltimore under a five-year deal announced Tuesday.

The Japanese automaker will start shipping 65,000 new vehicles a year to the port, creating an estimated 160 new jobs, the Maryland Port Administration announced.

It's new business the port of Baltimore, already the nation's top auto port, won from its East Coast rival Port Newark in New Jersey.

The five-year contract is between Mazda North American Operations and Amports, the private auto processor which owns the port's Chesapeake Auto Terminal in Fairfield, port officials said.

In addition to 160 jobs created, the new business will support nearly 300 additional jobs in the Baltimore area, Maryland Port Administration officials predicted.

Steven Rand, president and CEO of Jacksonville, Fla.-based Amports, said the company is "happy to have Mazda as a client in Baltimore" but otherwise declined to comment on the new agreement or its impacts on employment in Baltimore.

Maryland Transportation Secretary James T. Smith Jr. and several high-profile legislators from Maryland welcomed the news, which comes a week after the state announced record-breaking automobile import figures at the port.

"Thousands of good-paying, family-supporting jobs are created by our very active and busy Port," Smith said in a statement. "As Maryland's economy continues to grow, the Port of Baltimore is again demonstrating why it is a leader in our state for bringing in new business and jobs."

"In today's economy, this announcement is music to the ears of hard-working Maryland families," said Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, also in a statement.

The Baltimore port will be the "new home" for all of Mazda's vehicle imports in the Northeast, said Robert Davis, the company's senior vice president for U.S. operations, in a statement. "The decision for Mazda to move ports makes sense for our business and we look forward to growing this relationship."

Nick Beard, a Mazda spokesman, said the automaker recently accepted bids for its business from different port operators in the Northeast as its previous contract with Port Newark in New Jersey came up for renewal. Amports — which also handles Mazda imports into Jacksonville — made the best offer, he said.

"It was a business decision," Beard said.

Mazda offered its two employees working in Newark relocation packages, Beard said, but he didn't know how the switch would affect jobs at Amports.

The deal comes as port officials seek to expand the port's footprint by acquiring contaminated land at Sparrows Point, where a massive steel mill closed last year, for adding a new auto terminal. Those plans have not gotten far because of environmental remediation concerns.

Bringing another car manufacturer to its private terminal allows Amports to add traffic at the port without requiring new terminal construction.

The competition among ports to attract car manufacturers has been intense, with ports like Philadelphia and Brunswick, Ga., vying alongside Baltimore for new business. While waterfront land for expansion is scarce — part of the draw of Sparrows Point — Baltimore has successfully attracted Fiat cargo vans, Mitsubishi SUVs and Hondas in recent years.

The additional 65,000 Mazda vehicles — including the MX-5 Miata convertible sports car, Mazda 2 compact, Mazda 6 sedan, and CX-5 and CX-9 sport utility vehicles— will add to the record-breaking numbers of automobile imports at the port in recent months.

Baltimore's automobile imports were up 9 percent in the first six months of 2013, compared to the same period in 2012, port officials said last week.

Last year, the port's public and private terminals handled 652,000 vehicles. In June, a record 22,997 vehicles were imported through the port's public terminals alone. The port's biggest automakers are Chrysler, Mercedes, Ford, Subaru and BMW, but it also handles other makes.

The Baltimore port is ranked first among 360 U.S. ports for handling automobiles and light trucks, as well as farm and construction machinery and several other products. Importing and exporting automobiles, one of the port's top functions, currently accounts for about 1,000 of the 14,630 jobs at the port.

The port overall is responsible for $3 billion a year in personal wages and salaries and more than $300 million a year in state and local taxes.

krector@baltsun.com

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