NEWS, SPORTS, COMMENTARY, POLITICS for Gloucester City and the Surrounding Areas of South Jersey and Philadelphia

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Holt Family Not Liked by Longshoreman’s Assn.

"That lease sickens me. I don't know how they got away with it, because we would like to use that land for other things," said Gloucester City Mayor William James, who describes a prickly relationship with the city's largest employer and taxpayer.

Courier-Post Staff

News of the Holt family's proposal to Gov. Jon S. Corzine to control port operations in Camden, Salem and ultimately Paulsboro has stirred up bitter memories of the family's 40-year history on the waterfront.

"Asinine" is how union leader Martin Mascuilli described replacing the South Jersey Port Corp., a quasi-state agency, with a private company run by Thomas J. Holt Sr. and his three sons.

Photo Holt's Corporate headquarters is located in the former Coast Guard Base, King Street, Gloucester City

"I don't know how anybody could entertain it. It would absolutely be a disaster for union labor. Jobs would be lost forever, wages and benefits would be cut," said Mascuilli, secretary/treasurer of the International Longshoreman's Association, Local 1291, the largest and most powerful union on the river.

Mascuilli says he will never forgive the Holts for replacing the ILA with their own union, Dockworkers No. 1, in 1993 at the Gloucester Terminal, a sprawling 124-acre site on King Street in Gloucester City.

"They brought in scabs and put hundreds of people out of work. Besides that, I don't think it's good business to give somebody that much power. Revolutions have started for less concentration of power than that," said Mascuilli of Marlton.

The Holt family, which employs about 1,000 people on both sides of the river, owns and operates the Gloucester Terminal and operates the Packer Avenue Terminal in South Philadelphia.

The family plans to expand on either side of Packer Avenue as that terminal grows to meet increased demand for international trade.

The union leader questioned the wisdom of turning a "jewel" over to a private company that went bankrupt in 2001, leaving creditors with millions in unpaid debt.

"If it has to be sold, at least sell it to somebody who has been fair and profitable. Given the interest in building marine terminals these days, there would be no shortage of suitors," Mascuilli said.

Leo Holt, president of Holt Logistics Corp., believes the timing is right for the governor to consider privatizing port operations to save taxpayers money.

Last year, the state pumped $9 million in tax revenue into the South Jersey Port Corp. to service debt on two Camden terminals, a tiny port in Salem, and to make its annual payment in lieu of taxes to the city of Camden for use of the tax-exempt land.

Land ownership would remain tax-exempt under Holt's plan, which includes a long lease to operate the ports.

The plan would save the state money and free it to focus on the more difficult job of revitalizing the city, Holt said.

"Generally, we think subsidizing port operations isn't necessary in today's world," said Holt, falling short of a promise that his company would not require any state help.

"It's too early in the process to say that for sure. The key is to get the dialogue moving. We think the timing is right because the governor is inventorying public assets. I trust that sharp minds are looking at ways to get the best return on these assets and I believe we can help."

Corzine spokesman Brendan Gilfillan said Holt's Aug. 17 letter is under review.

The South Jersey Port Corp. owns about 300 acres of prime real estate in Camden that is coveted for upscale waterfront housing, recreation and marine services.

The port corporation employs about 140 direct workers, though it generates thousands of jobs for shippers, longshoremen and truckers.

Thomas J. Holt Sr. staked his claim in Gloucester City in 1967 when he bought half the site of the former New York Shipbuilding Co. The state bought the rest, across the border in Camden, and turned it over to South Jersey Port Corp.

With a heavy infusion of public money, Holt expanded the half-mile waterfront property into the largest refrigerated and dry warehouse facility on the East Coast.

The family name became synonymous with hard work, shrewd and intensely private business dealings and expansive holdings in four states and Puerto Rico.

When the now-defunct Holt Group filed for bankruptcy in 2001, it reported annual revenues over $300 million and more than $350 million in debt.

The Holts lost ownership of the Gloucester Terminal in bankruptcy, along with holdings in Puerto Rico and Wilmington, Del., but bought the Gloucester Terminal back from bondholders last year. Also in Gloucester City is Holt's corporate headquarters, in a former Coast Guard building on the waterfront, under a 99-year lease.

"That lease sickens me. I don't know how they got away with it, because we would like to use that land for other things," said Gloucester City Mayor William James, who describes a prickly relationship with the city's largest employer and taxpayer.

The Holts pay about $1.1 million a year in taxes and payment in lieu of taxes to the city, or nearly 11 percent of its tax base.

But Gloucester Terminal consumes much of what could be a picturesque waterfront. It also is noisy, gritty, non-stop and located across the street from private homes.

"The industry is an eyesore and Holt is a necessary evil," said former Mayor Bob Bevan.

"We're trying to get him to put up buffers and to move his headquarters elsewhere. But they're an amazing group. According to his lease, if we move 'em, we have to build 'em another building. We're just no match," said Bevan.