HALIFAX, Nova Scotia -- The snow fell right to left, tiny whitecaps snapped on the water and fog whistles groaned long in the distance, all of it whipping Halifax Harbour into a modest frenzy. And, inside his waterfront office, David Bellefontaine was just as excited.
He stretched out a map, put a finger on the Atlantic Ocean and dragged it around McNabs Island into a round anchorage called Bedford Basin, just past the center of town. The whole swath, from the ocean inland, was at least 60 feet deep, he explained. Carved by a glacier. Then he sat back in his chair and smiled like a man who'd just said everything worth saying.
"That," Bellefontaine said with a nod of his head, "is God's gift to Halifax."
And that is what the port of Baltimore must contend with in its bid to become an East Coast shipping hub for some of the largest merchant vessels on the globe.
As Maryland officials try to lure the world's top shipping alliance with multimillion-dollar concessions for the city's handicaps of nature, Bellefontaine sits in the president's office of the Halifax Port Corporation presiding over a gift from God.
His harbor is so deep and wide and accessible it's as if Mother Nature built it with big ships in mind.
It is an hour or so from the main North Atlantic trade lanes, protected by a buffer island in the center of its entrance. At the northern end is a straight mile of undeveloped harbor front, with deep water a few feet out and a railroad track alongside. And the harbor never freezes -- another geological gift, this one courtesy of the Gulf Stream beating at its door.
Bellefontaine laughs when he shows his maps and brochures to visitors, much like a salesman whose goods are so perfect they sell themselves. "It's a miracle," he said. "If we had 20 million people at our back door."
The Halifax port director says that without bothering to hide his frustration because he knows he's touched on the defining issue of what has become one of the most closely watched negotiations in the maritime trade in decades.
Shipping giants Maersk Inc. and Sea-Land Service Inc. are expected to announce later this month which port will become their new East Coast hub, and they have selected Halifax, Baltimore and New York/New Jersey as finalists. The potential consequences are considerable: 2,000 or more direct jobs and twice that in economic spinoffs, by some estimations. For the ports of Baltimore and Halifax, the deal could triple their container cargo business overnight.
That a large shipping alliance responsible for about 15 percent of the world's container cargo would abandon New York in favor of a smaller port seemed almost unthinkable before Maersk and Sea-Land announced their intentions to consolidate. The megaport has to be more than just a convenient place to dock ships, it has to have an efficient means of moving the ships' cargo into the major American consumer markets such as New England and the Midwest -- and, most importantly, New York. But New York harbor is too shallow for the next-generation vessels that Maersk and Sea-Land are adding to their fleet, and will require blasting through bedrock to deepen. If New York could guarantee a deeper channel, most analysts say, the contest would end, and the ports of Baltimore and Halifax could return to the more conventional visions of simply enhancing their second-tier status.
But New York's dredging will cost $621 million, and for half that price other cities could build the companies large, modern cargo terminals that the shipping lines could operate any way they please.
And so Baltimore suddenly finds itself competing with the unlikely shipping adversary of Halifax, Nova Scotia -- an oceanfront Canadian city that might well be the world's perfect port, if only it weren't where it is.
The unofficial capital of Atlantic Canada can hardly fathom the advantages Baltimore holds once cargo gets on the ground. Train rides that take six hours from Maryland can take more than a day from Nova Scotia. Trucks take even longer.
Most of the goods shipped into Halifax today are bound for Ontario and Quebec, not the United States. About 30,000 cargo boxes a year travel to the Midwest, and some are ferried on tiny merchant ships to Boston, but Halifax is decidedly a Canadian port of call.
Yet, officials in eastern Canada predict that Halifax will prevail as a superpower of Atlantic shipping. The city has more than its roomy accommodations to offer, they say, mentioning two qualities that make it far different from any of its competitors.
For one, it's in Canada. That makes its labor contracts more flexible and its government fees less costly. Shipping lines calling Halifax can transfer cargo to another ship and send it to the United States -- prohibited between two American cities unless the line's vessels are flagged in the United States.
And second, there's what Canadian officials consider their wild card. In the government offices, union halls, executive towers and throughout the 350,000-strong populace of this Nova Scotian town, seemingly everyone wants to make Halifax a bigger dot on the globe of the shipping trade.
"You don't hear any questions up here that maybe this is something our taxpayers shouldn't be investing in," said Margaret Murphy, a spokeswoman in the Nova Scotia provincial government. "If it's for the port, it's good. The port is very much a part of people's everyday lives."
Halifax exists because of its port, and its centers of culture and government have long grown around it. The entire downtown area is built on a hill that slopes toward the harbor, making nearly every street and walkway a funnel to the waterfront.
The center of downtown commerce and tourism is stretched along the harbor inside renovated wharves and warehouses. The city has a 7.5 percent unemployment rate, yet between the port, the Navy, the Coast Guard, the Halifax Shipyard, the Esso Refinery, the gypsum wharf and other port businesses, shipping accounts for about 7,000 jobs in the city.
"Everyone who lives here works at the port or knows somebody who does," said Bellefontaine. Shipping is not the largest employer in the area; government is. Halifax is the capital of Nova Scotia and the Atlantic base for the Canadian navy. But to walk along Water Street and talk with residents about their port is like listening to the crowds on Pratt Street ponder the Orioles.
When the shipping lines announced their finalists in December, Baltimore officials responded with muted optimism. In Halifax they threw a party, with politicians as high up as the Nova Scotia premier calling the news a blessing of historic proportions.
The local and provincial governments have promised 430 million Canadian dollars for construction, and the federal government will offer all the land the project needs.
"The superport?" asked university student Richard Miller, referring to the Maersk/Sea-Land proposal by its preferred name in the local media. "I don't really know anything about it."
He paused, standing outside a waterfront coffee shop, and looked across the port's main channel. Then he pointed toward the water and spoke again.
"But, you know, we have the 60-foot draft, and the railroad's right there. And New York? They're not deep enough," he said. "Baltimore harbor, that's too hard to get to, eh? So why not bring it here?"
The city was swallowed by snow and ice late last month, in what seemed a typical Nova Scotian whiteout. But it was the first snow of the season and could well be the last. A Halifax winter is little different from a Baltimore one, but for the winds. The container piers sometimes close when the winds exceed 40 knots, but never because of ice and snow.
Halifax looks little different from a medium-size American city, save the cleaner sidewalks and the street signs in French and English. It is nearly devoid of violent crime by American standards. Motorists routinely stop in the middle of the block to let pedestrians cross.
Baltimore, too, exists because of its proximity to the waterways, but, perhaps unlike its American competitor, Halifax is a city that has scarcely sought to become anything more. There are hotels and casinos, and a historic shopping district for the tourist set, but even those cater largely to the 70 cruise ships that call on Halifax every year.
The Canadian federal government owns much of the undeveloped waterfront in Halifax and its twin city of Dartmouth across the harbor. And all of it is reserved for commercial shipping, rather than the shopping districts and high-rise apartments common on the Upper Patapsco.
For years, Halifax was mostly a cold weather port, the only alternative for Montreal-bound cargo encountering a frozen St. Lawrence River. But when cargo began moving predominantly in sealed metal containers, the world's ports of preference moved closer to the oceans. Today, Halifax handles about 300,000 cargo containers every year, roughly the same as Baltimore.
Much of the city's shipping success is owed to its proximity to Europe. Ships that use the Halifax piers almost always make them their first or last stop on the continent -- typically the time when the most cargo is loaded on or off.
Halifax is east of Baltimore by nearly 15 degrees of longitude, roughly the distance from Baltimore to St. Louis. Its latitude is just a few degrees south of the mouth of the English Channel. Ships leaving major European ports such as Rotterdam, the Netherlands, can be in Halifax in as little as four days, a full day faster than to the American ports to the southwest.
But Halifax is also on a watery peninsula served by just one railroad and one major highway. For that, analysts predict, the city will win some of Maersk and Sea-Land's business, but never all of it.
The port nearly killed Halifax during World War I, when a merchant ship hauling weapons components to the French battlefields exploded and leveled an entire square mile of the city, killing about 2,500 residents. The catastrophe hangs a pall over the city today, with monuments that include the ship's anchor embedded in the ground two miles away.
"When you don't have the market -- the people -- near your port, you have to fight for every bloody ton of cargo you can get," said Bellefontaine. "If this port had Baltimore's market and location near the population, it would be the best port on the East Coast.
"But the harbor was here even before the city was, and no one in Halifax ever loses sight of that. It's the jewel of the region. If there is any priority here, it's the harbor."
Pub Date: 1/03/99