Ford Motor Co. said yesterday that it will move a portion of its auto export business from Wilmington, Del., to Baltimore, lending momentum to the local port's effort to revitalize its marine terminals by pursuing niche cargoes.
The contract, for about 27,000 Ford cars and trucks annually, also is a major boost for ATC Logistics Inc. The Jacksonville, Fla.-based automobile processing company began leasing a 55-acre, state-owned vehicle terminal 14 months ago in hopes of tapping into the Baltimore market.
The Ford contract will create 30 to 40 jobs and fill ATC's terminal to near capacity, prompting fresh calls for an expansion of the facility in a year when state budgets are tight.
ATC officials said the Ford contract answers critics who questioned the state's speculative investment in the Masonville automobile terminal, which was built with about $21 million in public funds at a time when some private auto processors said they were struggling to attract new business.
The facility, which opened in September 2000, had been largely idle until last week, when ATC began processing the first of about 70,000 Honda vehicles annually. ATC will begin processing Fords in April.
"So the people who said there's not enough business to go around - I guess we proved them wrong," said Howard L. Gable, ATC's president and chief operating officer.
Maryland port officials agree that more space is needed if Baltimore is to continue attracting new business.
But expanding the Masonville terminal would cost an estimated $30 million.
"With the state this year having a very limited ability for funding new projects, everybody is going to be fighting down in Annapolis trying to get their share," said James J. White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, which oversees public marine terminals.
Maryland port officials began pursuing automobiles and other niche cargo about six years ago in an effort to offset a gradual slide in the port's lucrative container business.
Analysts say vehicle processing is a profitable alternative for secondary ports such as Baltimore because it often results in spinoff jobs.
In addition to storing vehicles that arrive in port, ATC and other auto processing companies need skilled labor to clean and accessorize the cars before they are transported overseas or to domestic dealerships.
Ford officials said they decided to move their business to Baltimore to take advantage of cheaper rail transportation into the city.
The auto manufacturer, which exports to more than 80 countries, expects to save about $2 million per year as a result of the move.
"It's in getting the vehicles from the assembly plant to the port where we're able to see some additional savings," said Denny L. Carpenter, manager of Ford's vehicle logistics department.
The deal with ATC severs a 15-year relationship between Ford and Autoport Inc., a Wilmington auto processing firm. But Wilmington port officials expressed optimism that the business would be replaced quickly.
"Ford's departure is a loss to the port, but we've had expressions of interest from a number of other car companies in locating their import/export operations to Wilmington," said Adam McBride, executive director of the port of Wilmington.