New Year's pyrotechnics courtesy of Ports America

The Baltimore Sun

Crowds celebrating New Year's Eve in Baltimore's Inner Harbor will be taking in a fireworks display paid for by a new player in town they've likely never heard of: Ports America.

It is the first time a corporate sponsor is picking up the tab for the entire event.

Spending big bucks to underwrite a public spectacle may seem an unusual move for a company that, unlike a bank or retailer or credit card, has little to do with average consumers.

But Ports America Inc. wants to raise the profile of what has previously been a fairly obscure business -- running the biggest container cargo terminal at the Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore, one of the state's major economic engines.

Before 2006, few outside the insular port community knew or cared that a British company, P&O; Ports, ran Baltimore's Seagirt Marine Terminal and other U.S. port facilities. But that quickly changed when Dubai Ports World, owned by the United Arab Emirates country of Dubai, bought P&O.; The ensuing uproar over security fears forced Dubai to sell its American business to an arm of AIG Global Investment Group, which renamed the company Ports America when it took over in March.

"The lesson learned there was you've got to be positioned as the true-blue, trustworthy loyal Americans," said Erik Gordon, a marketing expert and former Johns Hopkins University professor. "Now you've added security concerns to an industry that doesn't get any respect and isn't loved."

Ports America, which approached the city about sponsoring the celebration, said it is spending more than $200,000 to pay for three barges loaded with fireworks rather than the usual two. The show will be the biggest since the one that ushered in the new millennium, the city said.

"We'd like to feel that we're a big part of Baltimore," said Christopher Lee, managing partner of AIG Highstar Capital, which runs Ports America. "It's a chance to say thanks to all our employees, who had been through a tough time with the Dubai deal. Now they can be proud of their company."

Ports America was AIG Highstar Capital's first maritime-related acquisition, but now ports are the infrastructure-investment fund's fastest-growing sector, Lee said.

The U.S. insurance giant has since acquired Amports, one of the largest handlers of auto imports and exports here and across the country, and its subsidiary ATC Logistics International Inc. It also bought stevedoring firm MTC Holdings. Baltimore is the only port where all three companies have a presence, Lee said.

While other sponsors have contributed to the city's New Year's Eve celebration in the past, this is the first year a single company has assumed all costs for the fireworks display, the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts said. In return, Ports America is being listed on all advertising materials associated with the event.

Red, white and blue posters with the Ports America flag-like logo have started appearing downtown to promote the event. John Blom, vice president of Local 333 of the International Longshoremen's Association, said Ports America had invited union officials to be a part of the advertising.

Mayor Sheila Dixon will hold a news conference tomorrow with Mark Montgomery, chief of Ports America Baltimore operations, to trumpet the details of the year-end display. Lee, of AIG Highstar Capital, said the company is hosting a New Year's Eve party on a top floor of the World Trade Center so its port partners and other guests can have a prime view of the pyrotechnics.

A graduate of the Johns Hopkins University who vacations on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Lee stresses his connections to the area.

"P&O; didn't have a chairman that went to college in Baltimore," he said.

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