With the Sparrows Point steel mill preparing for a shutdown next week and a possible sale, Baltimore County officials began looking Wednesday for ways to redevelop the peninsula, bringing new jobs and businesses to the area around the ailing plant.

In naming a task force to come up with ideas for the land, officials said they hope to capitalize on the expansion of the nearby port of Baltimore to lure new industry and revitalize communities that have been hit hard by unemployment.

"We have a phenomenal catalyst in the port of Baltimore," said county economic development chief Dan Gundersen, who will lead the committee.

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said plans to study how to take advantage of the port expansion were in the works for months before last week's announcement by RG Steel that it would shut down the plant and lay off nearly 2,000 workers. He said the mill's situation has felt like a "roller coaster."

Kamenetz said steelmaking should remain part of the peninsula's operations and that the task force would study how to take advantage of unused portions of former Bethlehem Steel real estate.

"We must create family-sustaining jobs," he said.

The Seagirt Marine Terminal is being expanded to accommodate the world's largest ships. Baltimore is one of two East Coast ports — Norfolk, Va., is the other — that will be able to handle super-size ships with the widening of the Panama Canal, scheduled to be completed in 2014.

The new Sparrows Point Partnership, which includes members from the development, port operations, manufacturing and transportation fields, also will look at the impact of the port's expansion on the North Point, Essex, Rossville and Middle River areas.

The area has resources that include deep-water access, highways, rail lines and land already designated for industrial use, Kamenetz said.

Gundersen said there is "no expectation that this committee is going to be engaged in any residential and retail analysis."

"Retail follows, it does not lead, economic transformation," he said. "Our first order of business is to look at the industrially zoned land and opportunities."

Among many in the area, "there's always been this feeling that steelmaking would drive the growth there," said state Del. John Olszewski Jr., a Democrat who represents the area. "Obviously, the steelmaking process on the peninsula has seen better days and has been especially challenged in recent years. There have been a lot of ups and downs and various owners."

Kamenetz and Olszewski said state and county officials would stand by the steel industry but want to look toward the future by taking advantage of the port expansion and the manufacturing land that has been underused.

In nearby Dundalk, the average unemployment rate over the past five years has been 9.5 percent, above the countywide rate of 6.3 percent, Gundersen said. And the vacancy rate for industrial space in Dundalk and Essex grew from 5 percent in late 2007 to more than 15 percent this spring.

"This is an area that has been hit the hardest," Gundersen said.

Jobs spurred by the port's expansion could include those in the fields of construction, truck driving and customs brokerage, said Harry Halpert, president of MTC Logistics and a member of the new partnership.

"There will be a cross section of blue-collar and white-collar jobs as a result of the expansion of the Panama Canal and what the port of Baltimore has done already," Halpert said.

Former County Executive Ted Venetoulis, a port commissioner named to the partnership, said he wants to see the team focus on how government can work with the private sector to spur economic activity on the peninsula.

"It's not going to be done with just public dollars, and it's not going to be done with just a single private enterprise," he said.

With the fate of the steel plant unknown, "you have to look at all the alternatives," he said, adding that he hopes organized labor would be engaged in the discussion.

The committee will start meeting this summer and hopes to release a report early next year.

alisonk@baltsun.com

twitter.com/aliknez