- Associated Press - Sunday, May 11, 2014

ERIE, Pa. (AP) - At 53, Dale Carullo faced the daunting task of starting over.

Until then, Carullo’s job as a welder’s helper provided him with a good wage for a good day’s work at an Erie factory.

Then the economy collapsed and the job disappeared, leaving him to eke out a living with odd jobs.

“It was pretty tough,” Carullo said.

On the day he finally decided to apply for unemployment benefits, he was stopped by a phone call from just down the road on the Presque Isle waterfront, where another story of starting over was unfolding.

A couple of years earlier, the owners of a New Jersey marine salvage company came to town, determined to restore the luster to the city’s historic but long-idled shipyard - one of the two largest on the Great Lakes - as a shipbuilding and repair center for mammoth tugboats and barges plying the lakes and oceans.

An official with that company, Donjon Shipbuilding & Repair, called about Carullo’s job application, asking him to come on board as a laborer.

Three years later, Carullo is part of a success story penned by Donjon founder and maritime attorney J. Arnold Witte, 75, who began his career at 12 by working summers in his dad’s Staten Island ship salvage yard.

Today, Donjon is operating full tilt in Erie’s waterside facility of more than 200,000 square feet, building and repairing huge ocean-worthy tugs and barges that dwarf the reconstructed USS Niagara, a two-masted vessel moored nearby for visitors to the Erie Maritime Museum.

The original Niagara, a testament to the shipyard’s rich history, was one of nine vessels built there by Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, who used them to defeat the British in the pivotal Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812.

These days, Donjon appears to be winning a new war with the sprawling shipyard where others tried but failed to make a go of it.

An improving economy is driving investments in American and Canadian port upgrades and inspiring confidence in domestic and ocean carriers that are expected to spend more than $1 billion this year on modern, fuel-efficient vessels.

Donjon officials said they were in the right place at the right time.

“They’ve been very active, hiring new employees … and bringing in a lot of types of labor from other companies that had closed,” Erie Mayor Joseph E. Sinnott said. “It’s been a really good addition, a logical piece to the Erie economy.”

Officials estimate the rebirth of Erie’s shipbuilding industry, shut down for four decades, has pumped more than $30 million into the local economy, putting displaced workers such as Carullo into well-paying jobs. Depending on how many projects are underway, the shipyard employs 200 to 300 workers, Donjon officials said.

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