Shifting image along harbor

The Baltimore Sun

A fortress of tony condominiums and townhouses now stands on the grounds of the old Bethlehem Steel shipyard at the base of Federal Hill. The city's Fire Department Repair Facility down the road is slated to be sold for more waterfront residential development. And cargo vessels long ago gave way to the pleasure boats that now dock at the Baltimore Museum of Industry's adjoining sailing school.

The Lynch brothers, owners of General Ship Repair Corp., see the writing on the wall. One of the few remaining industrial outfits on Key Highway's Inner Harbor rim, the fourth-generation family business is eyeing a move to Canton after nearly 80 years at its present location. They insist their resilient business is here to stay.

"It used to be shipyards from Domino Sugar all the way down to the Rusty Scupper," said Cary B. Lynch, 50, General Ship's vice president. "We knew we've needed to move ever since there were marinas on both sides of us. Our neighbors have already changed."

The Lynches fought for years to keep the surrounding swath of Key Highway industrial, to no avail. Now they've partnered with the city on a Key Highway Waterfront Study to develop a new master plan. The proposal, which goes to the City Council after gaining approval from the planning commission last month, would rezone the two-acre General Ship Repair property for mixed-use residential and retail while extending the HarborView promenade to an open-space terminus there. General Ship Repair would be grandfathered as an industrial parcel until the business is relocated.

"This is one of the last remaining industrial-zoned areas in the Inner Harbor," said Gary Cole, the city's deputy director of planning. "The area was slowly developing in a way that would make doing their business more difficult."

Selling the valuable waterfront land could help General Ship with the high cost of building a new berth and bulkhead downriver that is deep and strong enough to withstand the shop's weighty dry-dock repair equipment. Moving to Canton would also position the business closer to the cargo ships it services at the loading docks of the port's major terminals.

But the Lynches haven't put the Key Highway parcel on the market yet, and they haven't gotten any offers from developers. And an appropriate yet affordable site in Canton hasn't yet materialized.

"There's some sentimental value here, for sure," President Charles F. "Derick" Lynch, 55, said of the property his grandfather purchased in 1929. "But we need the cash to relocate the shipyard and keep in business."

The state Department of Business and Economic Development said it is splitting the cost of a $6,400 feasibility study with General Ship Repair to determine the cost of relocating the shipyard. General Ship will have a more formal business plan for developing a new site when the study is completed in the next month or so, Cary Lynch said.

General Ship Repair is the last place in town that can repair all grades of ship, from dinner cruise boats to massive barges to container vessels out at sea. The business still manages to bring in about $5 million in annual revenue, but only by diversifying through a three-pronged approach. Most of General Ship's work involves either dry-docking boats for repairs at the Key Highway site or sending crews out to service vessels at port of Baltimore terminals or even as far away as Alaska, Hawaii and Colombia, Derick Lynch said. General Ship Repair's Baltimore Metal Works division contributes the remaining 5 percent of its business. The machine shop provides employees with welding and steel fabrication work when there aren't ships to work on.

"It keeps us diversified with some industrial work in between ship dry-docking jobs," Cary Lynch said.

It's just the latest chapter for a company with a storied past. Grandfather Charles B. "Buck" Lynch started General Ship along Light Street in 1924 to repair paddle-wheelers and moved to Key Highway just before the Great Depression. The nascent business went bankrupt and Lynch lost the property, but managed to buy it back again at the auction block. Operations flourished during and after World War II, as the Liberty and Victory ships converted to commercial use required steady repairs. General Ship's work force, now just 45, swelled to 600. On-site workers later serviced warships in the run-up to Vietnam and AT&T; (now TyCom) cable-laying ships until the dot.com bust killed that contract.

The current dry-dock repair business is steady, and already booked up with tugboat repairs through the end of August, the Lynches said. But surrounding development has made it more difficult to bring ships in, and skittish clients are sometimes nervous about chancing high winds. Barges have knocked out wooden pilings at the small marinas that began surrounding General Ship Repair in the 1980s.

"We'll have customers upset saying, 'It's blowing 10 knots today. I'm afraid to bring my barge in,'" Derick Lynch said. "Then what do I do with the 45 guys I have lined up to work that day? It becomes a huge economic liability for us."

Moving to an industrial site in Canton would provide a better buffer, the Lynch brothers said. In 2004, Baltimore enacted a special maritime zoning district that included a 10-year development moratorium on parts of the harbor, from Curtis Bay to the Canton Industrial Area - but it was too late to benefit General Ship, as most industry had already disappeared from its section of Key Highway.

"We had no buffer around us," Derick Lynch said.

Preserving land for maritime use is not a dead issue. Mayor Sheila Dixon has recommended extending the development ban by a decade, to 2024. But it would also allow businesses to opt out of the regulations beginning in 2014, provided any new development planned on the property helps sustain the maritime industry and first gains City Council approval.

But the future success of General Ship Repair rests upon the development restrictions, which should remain in the current strengthened form, Cary Lynch said.

"We don't want our neighbors opting out several years from now," he said. "We don't want to move and have the same thing happen here, where we end up with marinas on both sides of us."

Gentrification and an eroding manufacturing base keep pushing out Baltimore's independent maritime businesses, forcing them to move down the Patapsco River. The Vane Brothers maritime services company, locally and family-owned since 1898, has moved several times: from Fells Point to Pratt Street to Canton to its present headquarters in the Fairfield area, said Elizabeth "Betsy" Hughes, the company's vice president.

Vane Brothers had a 250-foot petroleum barge come up from Norfolk, Va., recently for dry-dock repairs at General Ship. Vane makes every effort to send its vessels to the local rehab shop. It's a symbiotic relationship that has benefited both family businesses through the years.

"If we want to continue to do well as a port, the ability to have ship repair of the maritime industry is absolutely essential," Hughes said. "We use them all the time."

laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

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