City considering sale of property to boost port's auto processing

A developer wants to buy city-owned property near the Fairfield Marine Terminal to turn it into more parking for the port of Baltimore's thriving automobile import and export trade.

The city's Board of Estimates could consider as early as Wednesday selling the 8-acre property in the 1500 block of Chesapeake Ave. to Chesapeake Real Estate Group LLC for its appraised value of $760,000.

The Baltimore Development Corp. board voted Thursday to recommend the sale of the once-residential but long-vacant site. The BDC sought proposals for the property in October. Chesapeake's proposal was the only one of three that was "fully responsive" to the request, said Joann Logan, a BDC spokeswoman.

Doug Schmidt, principal at Chesapeake, said his company plans to spend more than $3 million to purchase the land, do environmental remediation and then convert the land into parking for vehicles being imported and exported through the port by auto processor Amports.

"Amports needs the property as soon as possible, and we need to do some environmental cleanup on it and develop it, install the infrastructure, stormwater management, paving and lighting, so it's not a small job," Schmidt said. "Our goal is to get them in this fall, and we'll see how it goes."

Amports, a private terminal operator with a strong presence at Fairfield, struck a deal with Mazda in August that promised as many as 65,000 vehicles coming into the port annually. The company's Chrysler exports were already strong, said Steven Rand, president and CEO of Jacksonville, Fla.-based Amports.

Amports needs more parking because "business is good" in the roll-on, roll-off automobile processing industry, Rand said.

The port of Baltimore is the nation's top auto port, processing hundreds of thousands of cars a year, though a continuing contract dispute with the dockworkers union whose members unload the ships remains a threat to business.

Amports wants to ensure that its capacity to hold vehicles after they come off ships but before they are transported to dealerships is ahead of business demand, Rand said.

"With the combination of Chrysler and Mazda volumes coming into the port, we're also looking for a larger footprint. That's the essence of what a processor has, is its footprint," he said. "It's just required because this industry keeps expanding and getting bigger."

The lot developed by Chesapeake would likely serve a mix of different vehicles — wherever the need is, Rand said.

The port of Baltimore is looking to expand its capacity with a new auto terminal at Sparrows Point, where a massive steel mill closed in 2012, but contamination and remediation concerns have slowed that process.

The BDC estimated the sale and redevelopment of the Fairfield site will generate dozens of jobs and return about $1.2 million over a 20-year period in tax benefits.

Schmidt said his company specializes in redeveloping properties where environmental contamination is a concern, and will work through the state's voluntary cleanup program.

"It's not a heavily contaminated site by any means, but it does have some environmental issues that need to be addressed," he said.

The sale of the property would include an option for the city to purchase the property back from Chesapeake if the contract with Amports ends and development or work on the property stalls, Schmidt said.

The option serves to ensure the property could continue to be used if markets shift and different uses become more economically viable, though Chesapeake likely would be as interested in redevelopment as the city in that case, Schmidt said.

"Long term, you could assume that because it's got great port access, because it's close to the city, because it's close to the highway, that you could get warehouse buildings on that property," he said. "As the economy grows and property is scarce, we think there is opportunity there to turn that more into an industrial park."

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