The port of Baltimore is a bedrock economic mainstay to the region, as it has been for 300 years, but it must overcome significant challenges if it is to continue to thrive, political and maritime officials said yesterday.
The port faces competition from other maritime destinations, security obstacles, its geographical location near the top of the Chesapeake Bay, and commercial and residential developers hungry for valuable waterfront land, a new economic assessment and experts noted.
"There are a lot of issues, and you can't point your finger at one thing challenging the port," said George "Bud" Nixon, chairman of the Private Sector Port Coalition.
He spoke yesterday during a conference assessing the port's future sponsored by the World Trade Center Institute, a nonprofit group that promotes the port.
The new study commissioned by the Maryland Port Administration, which oversees the port's public terminals, and obtained yesterday by The Sun shows a mixed bag of economic indicators.
The number of people whose jobs were directly tied to the port in 2002, the latest year studied, was 15,740, down from 17,733 in 1998, the last previous year reported. That was largely because of job losses at Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point plant.
But personal income, business revenue and local purchases generated by the port all rose, which indicates more efficient use of workers, said John C. Martin of Martin Associates in Lancaster, Pa., who conducted the study.
The tonnage of cargo shipped in containers was down slightly because of heavy competition from ports directly on the ocean, a trend that has developed over years and that port officials would like to stem.
But the port has been able to develop a niche in certain cargo such as paper products, automobiles, tractors and other equipment known as roll on/roll off cargo, mainly because of Baltimore's location nearer to Midwestern manufacturers than other East Coast ports. The niche cargo's drawback is that it's bulky.
Baltimore ranks among the top East Coast ports in its volume of such cargo, Martin said.
In all, the port handled more than 29.2 million tons of cargo in 2002, up from 26.5 million tons in 1998.
"Overall, the port has maintained tremendous strength as a generator in the economy locally," Martin said in an interview yesterday.
"There are a lot of positives, but the port needs to keep investing in its facilities; that's critical. If they don't invest, they won't get the cargo."
Waterfront property is at a premium as apartment and office developers compete for premium sites. State and city studies are examining the best use of waterfront properties, but the push and pull of development has some in Annapolis sounding alarms.
"It's important to develop a residential base," said Del. Brian K. McHale, a Baltimore Democrat.
"It's also important to maintain and create job opportunities for traditional blue-collar workers through the port," he said.
"We've had some double-digit increases in many categories of cargo. And when you're negotiating with a shipper to bring more cargo, one of the main concerns is that you have land in close proximity to the berth. Once the land is gone, it's gone."
Berths need to be deep enough to accommodate cargo ships that are growing in size, he said. Baltimore has some deep channels, but more dredging is needed, and dredging is costly and potentially environmentally hazardous.
State Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said yesterday that the state proposes spending more this year to ensure that the port's passageways are clear.
But money is tight and resources have had to be diverted for security. Flanagan noted that grants from the Department of Homeland Security for the port were about $11 million.
Billions more needed
Federal security aid given to the nation's ports is about $424 million, but the Coast Guard estimates that security plans will cost about $7 billion. By comparison, airports have been awarded about $3 billion.
Democratic Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Baltimore County said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have changed the world's - and the port's - focus.
"Ports have been identified as some of our most vulnerable areas," said the congressman. "Baltimore has done well with grants, but we need more."
Challenges facing the port
Other East Coast ports are seeking to lure business away from Baltimore, particularly cargo shipped in steel containers. Baltimore's location a day's journey up the Chesapeake Bay puts it at a disadvantage for that business, but the port has gained a niche in paper products, automobiles and farm equipment.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, resources have been diverted to protecting the nation's ports from bombs and other weapons. Baltimore has received about $11 million in federal grants and has sought millions more.
Since developers have found that residents and white-collar office workers like the waterfront views, the port has had to compete for land once exclusively in the industrial domain.
Baltimore has some coveted deep-water channels, but expensive and potentially environmentally damaging dredging is needed to keep the waterways clear.