BALTIMORE -- Universal Maritime Services Corp., a New York cargo-handling firm, plans to expand to the Baltimore waterfront by mid-August, a move that represents a vote of confidence in the port, maritime leaders say.

The move comes during a time of contraction that has left the ailing port with only two major stevedores, or cargo handlers, that specialize in goods transported in standardized cargo containers. As a stevedore, Universal employs dockworkers to load and unload ships and handle cargo once it arrives at a marine terminal.

Two major container stevedores have left the port in the past two years: Maher Terminals Inc. bowed out of the port in 1988 and Clark Maryland Terminals last year sold its local stevedoring business to Ceres Corp. That left only Ceres and ITO Corp., along with several smaller, specialized stevedores.

"I think its a wonderful sign for the port ... The fact that a major stevedore would throw its hat into the ring is a vote of confidence," said J.T. "Jock" Menzies 3rd, chairman of the Terminal Corp. terminal and warehousing company.

Universal is a subsidiary of Maersk Inc., a Danish firm that also operates the port's No. 1 ship line, Maersk Line.

The company has hired Anthony Chiarello, who for the past year has been deputy executive director of the Maryland Port Administration. Chiarello will be assistant vice president in charge of the mid-Atlantic region.

Now limited to New York and New Jersey waterfronts, Universal will expand into Hampton Roads, where it will handle Maersk ships, and may look toward Philadelphia, Chiarello said. All mid-Atlantic ports will be administered by Chiarello's Baltimore office with a staff of about 10.