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March  28,  2012

Rumored 'privatization' of
port irks County Council

Members of County Council are hearing rumors that there's a move under foot to put the Port of Wilmington up for grabs and they're not happy about it.

Bill Bell told his colleagues that he has been told by constituents in organized labor that Delaware Port Corp. has put out "a request for proposal for a private entity to come in and take over the port."

Karl Kalbacher, county economic development director, said he was aware that a request is out  but believes it has to do with the long proposed expansion of docks along the Delaware River perpendicular to the present ones on the Christina.

Bell said his understanding is that the requests are for some company to take over "overall management and operation of the port." The port is now owned and operated by Diamond State Port Corp., an autonomous corporate entity of state government.

A full-service deepwater facility where about 400 ships call annually, the port claims to be the largest terminal, based on volume of cargo handled, along the Delaware River. It receives and ships out more than 5 million short tons a year with fruit, juice and containerized cargo accounting for most of that.

George Smiley told a Council finance committee meeting on Mar. 27, where Bell raised the issue, that the port has long operated as "a public-private partnership" with private companies cooperating with public management of the facility.

The issue as Bell and others described it is the effect 'privatization' of the port itself would have on its heavily union workforce. "We have a vital interest in the port when it comes to keep people working," Bell said.

"With all the union bustin' going on around the country ... it's not going to happen [here] without a darn good fight," Jea Street said.

Penrose Hollins, in whose Council district the port is located, was indignant that County Council evidently is again being left out of the loop. While deals are being arranged "they don't seem to trust us," but when they are completed "they come to us for tax incentives" and other economic development inducements, he said.

Discussion about the port came up as Council agreed provide $50,000 to establish the economic development grant program requested by County Executive Paul Clark. The financing will come from transferring the money from one line to another within the current-year budget of the Department of Community Services. There will be no additional appropriation.

Small businesses and non-profit organizations will be able to apply for matching grants of up to $15,000 "to create jobs and revitalize communities," Kalbacher told the committee meeting. He acknowledged that is "a small beginning," but expressed hope that the program will grow.

2012. All rights reserved.