Although it leads the East Coast in several categories of shipping activity, the port of Baltimore often seems to be hiding in plain sight.
So officials used the Saturday observance of National Maritime Day to throw open a pier at the Canton Marine Terminal and invite 28 businesses and agencies that call the port home to hold a career day.
"It's the first time we've done this," said former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, for whom the port is named. "It gives people a chance to see all aspects of the maritime industry and get to know a little bit about the port that has helped lift the economy and provide jobs."
Participants included security firms, tugboat operators and tourism groups. Companies handed out applications, while military recruiters handed out tote bags and T-shirts. Preservationists tried to attract new members to help save local maritime symbols.
"It helps get your name out there and get you some great exposure," said Ralf Halt, of McRoberts Maritime Security. "The turnout is surprisingly good, considering it's the Preakness Day."
Shauntira Somerville, 15, and Latia Leslie, 16, both students at Baltimore's Maritime Industries Academy High School, said that although they have their hearts set on joining the Navy, they came to the expo to check out what the Coast Guard has to offer.
That was all right with recruiter Lt. Ashley Thomas, who positioned herself near an eye-popping, kid-attracting armada of Lego ships spread out across three banquet tables.
"The Coast Guard is such a small service that kids don't think about us. By the time they finally learn what we're all about, it's too late," she said. "With the Lego ships, we get to meet some of the younger kids."
Several hundred people also took the opportunity to tour the NS Savannah, the first nuclear-powered cargo and passenger ship, which was built in the 1950s as a global ambassador in the Eisenhower administration's "Atoms for Peace" program.
The gleaming white ship, nearly 600 feet long, came to Baltimore in 2008 after it was decommissioned. It is tied up at the Canton terminal, and supporters hope it can someday become a floating museum.
At 11 a.m., Bentley and other maritime officials, including outgoing U.S. Maritime Administrator David Matsuda, led a wreath-laying ceremony. Overhead, a 48-star American flag — the one that flew during NS Savannah's keel laying in 1958 — snapped in the brisk spring breeze.
Bentley reminded the audience that while World War II-era ships and, later, the Savannah, were built in America, few commercial ships carry that label today.
Employment in the domestic shipbuilding and ship repair industry has fallen to half the total of 190,000 workers in 1981. The country ranks 12th in the world in commercial shipbuilding of large vessels, behind China, with 41 percent of the market; South Korea, 31 percent; Japan, 22 percent; and Germany and Poland, which are in single digits.
"The decline of this industry is of both economic and national security significance," warned a 2012 report by the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.
Bentley said the country needs to revive its shipbuilding industry and boost waterfront economies.
"It's going to happen," she said. "We need the jobs. We need the prestige. We need all that shipbuilding represents."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun