Port optimistic that Maersk will stay


The port of Baltimore stands a good chance of retaining its most important customer, Maersk Line, Maryland Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer said yesterday.

"I sense the prospects are fairly good we'll be able to work out something," he said.

Despite intense efforts by Virginia to lure Maersk to the rival ports of Hampton Roads, Maurice C. Byan, president of the Steamship Trade Association of Baltimore Inc., agreed that Maersk seems to be leaning toward staying in Baltimore. "There hasn't been a firm commitment yet," Mr. Byan said yesterday, but he added, "It seems the indicators are pointing that way."

In 1989, Maersk scheduled three ships a week in Baltimore. But late in the year, the line diverted one of those three to Hampton Roads. That fanned fears that Maersk would divert all its ships to Virginia once its three-year contract with the Maryland Port Administration expired this spring. The contract has been extended through the end of June while negotiations continue on a new agreement.

David L. Bindler, Maersk's regional director in Baltimore, said that his line and the state are involved in "very detailed" talks concerning a new lease. The two sides are discussing an agreement that would permit Maersk to operate its own terminal in Baltimore under a long-term lease -- perhaps one running 15 years or more, he said.

The terminal concept could be very attractive to Maersk, since a sister company, Universal Maritime Services Inc., provides stevedoring services in Baltimore to Maersk and other steamship companies. Under a terminal concept, the state would build modern facilities Maersk could use to expand its stevedoring operations as an important profit center.

Earlier in the talks, it looked as though Maersk might consolidate all of its ship operations in either Baltimore or Hampton Roads. xTC Mr. Lighthizer said yesterday, "I don't think that's necessarily the case."

Mr. Bindler agreed, saying, "It's not all or nothing." Maersk could choose the status quo, with Baltimore getting two ships a week and Norfolk, Va., one. But status quo for ships does not necessarily mean status quo for cargo, Mr. Bindler explained. A given container shipment can be routed in a variety of ways through any one of several ports.

While Maryland is trying to close the deal with Maersk, Virginia is rolling out its heavy guns. Gov. Douglas L. Wilder is planning to take an economic development trip to Europe this month. A spokeswoman for the Virginia Port Authority said yesterday she could not confirm that Mr. Wilder will visit officials at Maersk's headquarters in Copenhagen, Denmark.

However, Gov. William Donald Schaefer could. "They are" going to visit Maersk, he said. "That's what they're going for."

Asked if he planned his own trip to Copenhagen, he replied, "I'm not telling." But he suggested a trip may be in the offing. "We'll go at the right time," he said.

Mr. Schaefer, Mr. Lighthizer and Mr. Bindler were all guests yesterday at a luncheon in Baltimore held by the Advertising and Professional Club of Baltimore to honor Edwin F. Hale as the club's citizen of the year. Mr. Hale operates Baltimore-based barge and trucking companies.

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