RICHMOND, JULY 2 -- Gov. Gerald L. Baliles raised the stakes today in the interstate competition for foreign imports by announcing plans for a $4 million addition to the Portsmouth Marine Terminal that he said may entice several new European car makers to the southeastern Virginia port.
Fresh from a 12-day trade mission to England, Sweden and Denmark, Baliles said plans for a "common-user" automobile import facility was one of a number of ideas he raised during the trip to encourage new foreign trade and investment in the state.
At a meeting in London, Volvo, BMW, Fiat and Austin Rover executives expressed "keen interest" about the facility and "said that the development of this project could produce a dramatic increase in the use of Virginia's port," the governor told a news conference here.
According to Baliles and J. Robert Bray, the executive director of the Virginia Port Authority, which oversees shipping in Portsmouth, Norfolk and Newport News, the common-user facility would be a 50-acre asphalt parking lot where several car importers could cut handling and distribution costs by sharing the space.
The facility, which would cost between $3.5 million and $5 million to build, could eventually handle 80,000 to 100,000 vehicles a year, officials said.
All other major ports on the East Coast are pursuing car import business, but Virginia's port authority "would be the first to use a common-user facility," Bray said.
"This one is unique," said Bray, adding that the port authority would start engineering and design work once it reaches an agreement with the European companies.
Miles Maguire, a spokesman for the Maryland Port Authority in Baltimore, said in a telephone interview that officials there would take the Virginia competition seriously, but added that the Portsmouth project "really doesn't sound like it's on the scale of some of the things we're doing up here."
In the coming year, the Maryland port plans to build a $15 million terminal for Toyota, which would allow that prized customer to move 100,000 cars through Baltimore every year, Maguire said. The facility would include a new pier -- which the Portsmouth project does not now call for -- and a 40-acre holding lot, he added.
Baliles said he would round out his "Year of Trade" program in October with a 17-day mission to Japan, Taiwan and Korea. Earlier this year, the governor traveled to Japan and China to spur interest in Virginia markets and products.