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Port getting busier


The green-and-yellow John Deere tractors and the Case combines snake along Dundalk Marine Terminal, waiting to be loaded onto ships bound for the vast farms of Turkmenistan and the rice fields of the Philippines.

Because of a boom in exports of construction and agricultural equipment, Baltimore's longshoremen have twice as much work to do in loading and unloading massive ships like the NOSAC Sun.

That growth, sparked by emerging new markets and a weak dollar, has helped transform the port of Baltimore into a gateway to the world for agricultural and construction equipment.

"Our export markets have increased significantly, and that's good news for us and the port of Baltimore," said Jeff L. Keim, manager international transportation for Case Corp., a Racine, Wis.-based multinational company with $4.3 billion in annual sales.

According to the U.S. Commerce Department, Baltimore has become one of the top ports in the nation for handling heavy equipment such as bulldozers, cranes, tractors and combines.

In 1994, 324,390 tons moved through the port, an increase of 88,000 tons from the year before. This year, the volume is expected to exceed 1994's record tonnage. Already this year, Case has shipped 217 grain and rice combines to Turkmenistan, with the remainder of the $45 million sale to move through Baltimore next month.

Turkmenistan is one of a half-dozen independent nations that comprise one of the major agricultural regions of the former Soviet Union. Demand for heavy equipment is growing in the Far East as well.

While imports of heavy equipments have been steady, exports have soared as developing nations modernize their infrastructure and look for more efficient ways to farm.

Overall, exports of U.S. farm equipment have increased steadily since 1988, rising 7.7 percent last year to $2.97 billion, the Commerce Department reports.

European boom

"The European market is a boom now," said Ron Militello, president of Norwegian Specialized Autocarriers (NOSAC), which also handles a substantial volume of heavy agricultural and construction equipment here. "But there's also a strong influx into China, and trade with Vietnam is starting to pick up as well."

But the surge in agriculture and construction equipment here is not just the result of a growing world economy. It also reflects a quiet effort by MPA officials to carve out a niche in the so-called "high and heavy" market.

"This is something that didn't just happen," said Tom F. Howe, manager of the Maryland Port Administration's Midwest sales office in Chicago. "It was a conscious effort to go after this cargo."

About four years ago, marketing officials sat down at the MPA offices in the World Trade Center, targeting the so-called "ro-ro" (roll on, roll off) cargo that is driven on and off carrier ships. As the nation's second-largest port for car imports and exports, Baltimore was already well served by steamship lines such as Wallenius and NOSAC, whose ships can carry more than 6,000 " cars.

While the earliest auto carriers had fixed decks barely high enough to accommodate subcompact cars, the second generation is equipped with hydraulic decks that can be adjusted to handle massive equipment like cranes and tractors.

Port officials saw an opportunity to load ships with minivans from General Motors and combines shipped to Baltimore from Midwest manufacturing plants.

Marketing effort

With marketing officials from East Coast ports tripping over each other to lure cargo, Baltimore has waged an aggressive campaign with equipment manufacturers.

"We're in their face all the time," said Lou LoBianco, senior sales manager with the MPA. "We visit them four or five times a year. We'd take stevedores, labor and others with us to talk about Baltimore."

They tout the city's proximity to Midwest manufacturing plants, its regular service by leading steamship lines, and good truck and rail connections to handle their oversized loads.

"A lot of our sales pitch had to do with the inland economies that Baltimore can generate, being closer to the Midwest," Mr. Howe said. Often, the cost of shipping inland will be cheaper because of the proximity.

Following trends

Port officials also tried to capitalize on corporate belt-tightening and the trend toward downsizing.

"We found most companies were using a host of ports," Mr. Howe said. "Everybody is trying to downsize, using fewer steamship lines, fewer ports, truckers, custom houses and freight forwarders."

Driving 12-ton pieces of equipment, sometimes valued at $100,000 each, off and on ships is time-consuming. For the port's 1,200 longshoremen, the payoff in luring more cargo here has been more work.

"It's definitely brought the man-hours up," said Matty Capp, president of Local 333 of the International Longshoremen's Association.

Indeed, every 1,000 tons of "ro-ro" cargo moving through the port generates 1.75 jobs. That's more than double the number produced by 1,000 tons of containers, according to a 1993 port economic impact study.

In highly competitive times -- with steamship lines consolidating their container cargo and choosing fewer ports -- Baltimore plans to continue targeting specialty cargo such as heavy equipment.

Finding an advantage

"My whole marketing approach is to look for cargo where we have an advantage vs. the other ports," says Tay Yoshitani, executive director of the MPA.

But for companies like Case, cost will remain the most important factor. That could force the labor unions to reduce their rates to remain competitive with other ports, including Philadelphia, where wages have been cut back, and in nonunion Southern ports.

"We're right in the thick of a very competitive battle," said Mr. LoBianco. "Every piece of cargo is a battle."

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