Company holds open house at shipyard

By Jim Martin, Erie Times-News, Pa.

State Sen. Jane Earll noticed it as soon as she met J. Arnold Witte.

He wasn’t asking for anything, and he wasn’t promising more than he could deliver, said Earll, of Fairview Township, R-49th Dist.

But Witte, the owner of DonJon Marine Inc. in New Jersey, did plan to write a success story in December when he launched DonJon Shipbuilding and Repair on Erie’s bayfront.

Witte offered a progress report Wednesday as he led about 120 invited guests, including elected officials, members of the local business community and out-of-town customers and vendors through the largest shipyard on the Great Lakes.

Witte called it a work in progress.

But visitors to the shipyard mostly just saw progress and more than 70 employees going about their business.

Some fielded questions. Others continued to weld, measure and cut, inching ever closer to the completion of a massive 877-foot integrated tug and barge that’s parked in the shipyard’s massive dry dock.

Work on the vessel began in 2008 under Lake Erie Shipbuilding, which had leased the shipyard from the Erie-Western Pennsylvania Port Authority. Work on the project has accelerated in recent months, and Witte expects it move even more quickly as he continues to expand the work force.

Again, Witte made no promises but said he expects the company’s payroll could reach 150 or even 200 by the end of the year.

In addition to a schedule of ship refurbishment for winter, the company has set a deadline of Dec. 31 to finish work on the 137-foot, 10,000-horsepower tugboat, said Ken Boothe Jr., the plant’s general manager. The tug is named after his father, Ken Boothe Sr. Work on the barge is set to be completed by March 2012.

The obvious progress on the $50 million barge project and the hum of activity were seen as encouraging signs Wednesday by many who toured the 300,000-square-foot shipyard.

“What (Witte) has done at this shipyard has been nothing short of fabulous,” Earll said.

Ray Schreckengost, executive director of the Port Authority, which owns the shipyard, has seen less successful ventures.

In fact, Schreckengost said, he’s seen three previous operators declare bankruptcy in the 15 years that the port has leased the shipyard.

But Witte, who is a member of the International Maritime Hall of Fame and former president of the International Salvage Union, has inspired confidence, said Jake Rouch, vice president of economic development for the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership.

“Now, finally, we have an operator I’m sure isn’t going to leave,” Schreckengost said. “I can go back to the office, relax and not worry about the next lease payment.”

Schreckengost was joking, at least in part. But local officials take seriously the impact of a success story on Erie’s bayfront.

“These are good jobs, with benefits and 401(k)s,” Earll said as she watched welders at work on the tug boat.

Erie Mayor Joe Sinnott said he’s looking forward to the creation of more such jobs.

“Shipbuilding has been part of our heritage,” Sinnott said. “And this development tells us it will be part of our future.”

JIM MARTIN can be reached at 870-1668 or by e-mail.

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