Coal ship

A ship pulls in to the terminal at Consol Energy's Coal distribution facility in Baltimore. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun / June 8, 2011)

It was just one headline among many of its kind in The Baltimore Sun during the 1980s and 1990s: "Baltimore loses round to Va."

The 1995 article noted that the shipping giant Maersk Lines was ending its service between South America and the port of Baltimore, shifting its ships to Norfolk, Baltimore's chief Mid-Atlantic rival. During those decades, the port of Baltimore lost a lot of rounds, and few months went by without an article about a business deserting the city for the dynamic powerhouse to the south.

But things have changed. The shipping business here is rebounding vigorously from the worldwide recession, thanks to a strategic decision to de-emphasize containerized cargo — an area in which the port was losing badly — and to go after other goods.

Billions of dollars' worth of coal, autos and other cargo will pass through Baltimore this year, and the port is preparing for the giant container ships that will begin using a widened Panama Canal in 2014. The city's cruise business is also growing steadily; the port announced this month that more than 212,000 passengers have boarded in 2011, which will be a third-straight record year.

Meanwhile, its Virginia rival has been going through a period of turmoil and self-doubt as its recovery has lagged. The industry bible, The Journal of Commerce, recently stuck Norfolk with the label of "underperforming" — a description Baltimore seemed to own during the 1990s.

In July, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, unhappy with Norfolk's sluggish rebound, sacked all but one of the Virginia Port Authority board members. Concerned that Norfolk and the greater Hampton Roads region are losing ground to competitors in the lucrative container trade, he also recently ordered a re-examination of the port's administrative structure and strategic plan.

"A lot of this is the economy," said Virginia Port Authority spokesman Joe Harris. "It's been tough on us."

Baltimore is not Norfolk's chief rival. The two ports do not compete as directly as they did 20 years ago, when one port's loss — usually Baltimore's — was often the other's gain.

In a strategic shift in the late 1990s, Baltimore decided to de-emphasize containerized cargo to pursue autos, agricultural and construction machines, and niche cargoes, a strategy that has paid off handsomely over the past decades. And though Baltimore was once known as a hotbed of labor unrest, the last decade has seen more accord than conflict.

"We're doing good. Everybody's working together. People are not cutting each other's throats," said Helen Delich Bentley, the former congresswoman for whom the port is named and who has tracked maritime commerce for about 60 years. "There's not much to complain about. It's as good as I've ever seen it."

That's good news for the Baltimore region's economy. The port accounts for 16,700 jobs and $3.7 billion in annual wages, according to state statistics.

Still, the two ports compete for business. And that scramble could heat up when Baltimore joins Norfolk as the only East Coast ports — for at least two years — able to handle the giant container ships moving through the widened Panama Canal. (Before it can join the fray, New York must raise a bridge that is too low for the huge ships to pass under. It hopes to do so by 2016.)

Industry experts say there's nothing fundamentally wrong with the port of Norfolk. They say it has excellent facilities, as well as railroad connections that Baltimore and other ports can only envy. Its location is much closer to the open ocean than Baltimore, an especially attractive lure to time-conscious container ship operators. Norfolk still handles more than three times as many containers as Baltimore.

Nevertheless, a combination of economic factors, including competition on many fronts and weaknesses in industries it serves, has left the Virginia port in a mini-funk.

When McDonnell sacked most of the Virginia Port Authority board, state Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton told reporters the governor was not happy with production at the agency. In part, the decision may have been influenced by politics — McDonnell is a Republican and the board was made up of appointees of his Democratic predecessors — but Connaughton also pointed to the port's performance.

"We're the only port on the East Coast that has not recovered to pre-recession levels," Connaughton told The Virginian-Pilot newspaper in July.

Over the first six months of this year, the value of the cargo crossing the docks in Norfolk rose 18 percent from the year before, to $13.8 billion. But during that same period, the port of Baltimore handled $11.2 billion in cargo — almost a 40 percent increase from the first half of 2010. Norfolk slipped one spot in the ranking of U.S. ports, to seventh, while Baltimore improved to ninth, the state said.

In September, McDonnell asked the reconstituted board for a top-to-bottom review of the port's management and structure to find what's gone wrong. And last month, the new VPA board launched a performance review of the port's executive director, Jerry A. Bridges, who received a new six-year contract in January after serving since 2006.

The moves raise the possibility that the port of Norfolk could be in for a period of management flux — a stage Baltimore went through in the 1990s, when the Maryland Port Administration had a virtual revolving door for chief executives.