Two words deserve to be attached to James J. White as firmly as a ship’s deck welded to its hull: “record cargo.” It’s become a given in recent years that under his leadership as executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, the Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore will set new high-water marks for freight movement. No more. Not because port business is diminishing. Quite the contrary. But after two dozen years at the MPA including 18 in the top post, Mr. White has decided to move on. Future port growth will have to be someone else’s responsibility beginning Jan. 1.
The departure is entirely amicable. He was tired of the world travel and sensed the time had come to slow down, to move on. It’s not a retirement exactly. His plans aren’t fixed yet but he knows his next job won’t be full-time and won’t be consulting. He wants to spend a bit more time at home, watching sunsets from his waterfront home on Kent Island. He’s earned it. The question is: Will his successor appreciate how he’s positioned Baltimore for continued growth? Will he or she take advantage of the opportunities on the horizon? Will the potential hazards be apparent, too?
Here’s the wisdom of Jim White in two sentences: Shipping is about relationships, so cultivate them. Respect organized labor and they will respect you. But that also sells the maritime professional short. He’s done wonders for Baltimore because he focused on the challenges and, one by one, he’s addressed them. The port was short on funding. He developed a public-private partnership with Ports America. He saw an opportunity with the growth of super-sized ships and the expansion of the Panama Canal and developed the port’s 50-foot-deep berth at no cost to taxpayers (a second one is now being developed). He saw the bottleneck created by the Howard Street Tunnel and recently secured funding to enlarge the tunnel to accommodate double-stacking to better connect the port to customers in the Midwest.
This is why people are bullish on Baltimore’s port. The future used to look doubtful. Competition is fierce. How could Baltimore compete with East Coast ports that don’t require ships to steam all the way up the Chesapeake Bay, eight hours in, eight hours out? But with big ships, that’s changed. Coming to Baltimore means products are that much closer to their markets and vice versa. And the Ports America deal at Seagirt (signed 10 years ago because the state didn’t have the money to address the port’s needs) now looks like a genius move — flexibility, new equipment, the deep-water berth. “My biggest contribution to Maryland was getting that deal done,” Mr. White recalls.
Now, look at where things stand: The port accounts for more than 15,000 jobs with tens of thousands more linked to its activities. It drives $3.3 billion in wages, $2.6 billion in business revenue and nearly $400 million in taxes. A Baltimore longshoreman can earn $30 an hour and more with overtime. That’s not a living wage, that’s a prospering wage. The more jobs like that accrue to the Baltimore area, the more the whole region prospers.
We’re not normally in the business of singling out state government employees for their service. But Mr. White is a special case. He didn’t always get the support he deserved, particularly when others did not share his vision of the port. He stepped down as executive director in 2005 unhappy working for an administration that thought nothing of hiring a former ice dancer to a top MPA position. When Martin O’Malley took office after defeating Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. at the polls, his transportation secretary made rehiring him a top priority.
There are still challenges ahead, of course. There always are. The port can grow only so much before it needs a new container terminal (at a cost of $1 billion or more). But that problem is about a decade away. In the meantime, there’s getting the Howard Tunnel done which might take two to five years at a cost of $466 million. There are environmental studies to complete. Permits to acquire. Even funding, which apparently is set, has not yet been publicly disclosed. But that’s for the next executive director to fret about. A national search to find that person is now underway. Mr. White can simply watch the container ships pass by his Eastern Shore dock. He’s earned the peace and quiet for a job well done.