- 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.

“We’ve been busy,” said J. Arnold Witte’s son, John, who is general manager of the company, an offshoot of Donjon Marine Co., founded in the 1960s by the elder Witte and named for John and his sister, Donna.

On a blustery April day with a heavy lake fog hanging over the site, the 736-foot Atlantic Huron from Montreal, a bulk carrier the size of 21?2 football fields, waited for emergency repairs in Donjon’s 1,250-foot dry dock.

Scores of men moving about on the dry dock’s floor appeared almost miniature against the ship’s huge propellers.

In May 2011, those men and the Wittes celebrated a milestone when they completed the first vessel built in Erie since 1972: the Ken Boothe Sr., a 135-foot tug that pushes a 740-foot barge built by Donjon.

The 39,000-ton, self-unloading barge can discharge 6,000 tons of cargo per hour. Both are chartered to the American Steamship Co. for transporting iron ore pellets, coal and limestone.

Although company officials declined to discuss cost, industry reports indicate such a ship averages about $114 million.

When the Ken Boothe Sr. earned the “Significant Boats in 2012” award at the International Workboat Show in New Orleans, “it was a huge accomplishment for our company,” said John Nekoloff, subcontracts manager. “That put us on the map for shipbuilding.”

The biggest of the company’s projects, an ocean-going barge capable of carrying 185,000 barrels of petroleum, is about to begin, Nekoloff said. The estimated price for the 18-month project is $125 million, according to industry reports.

STOPS AND STARTS

Three operators who leased the facility from the Erie-Western Pennsylvania Port Authority filed for bankruptcy, records show.

Yet the Wittes saw hope in Erie, which like Pittsburgh was replacing an eroding manufacturing base with health care, higher education, tourism and service industry jobs.

The family, which operates a global marine business offering salvage, dredging, pollution control and other services, found a good workforce in Erie and an infrastructure capable of producing a marketable product, John Witte said.

“We saw an opportunity … good people, a sound facility,” he said.

The company, which started with 13 employees in 2009, recognized there would be a “learning curve,” Witte added. “But we were committed to taking it from where it was to where we are now.”

Employment has steadily increased.

“Our sweet spot is about 200 (employees),” said Witte, 53, who declined to discuss what his workers earn. “My grandfather and father used to say, ‘You can’t pay a good guy enough.’ “

The median wage for shipyard workers is $21 to $30 per hour, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The jobs at Donjon “are great-paying jobs; more like a job and a half, really,” said Jacob Rouch, vice president of the Erie Regional Chamber & Growth Partnership.

IN THE RIGHT PLACE

Donjon fits in nicely” in the blue-collar town of about 102,000 where almost one of every four dollars earned comes from a manufacturing job, said James Kurre, director of the Economic Research Institute of Erie and an associate professor of economics at Penn State Erie.

Donjon buys locally, which helps increase employment numbers, said Jeff Thoreson, who operates the Erie Shipping News.

“My father started the company out of the back end of a station wagon,” John Witte said. “He said, ‘You always support the area you work in.’ … You like to leave something.”

Industry watchers are encouraged by Donjon’s Erie success.

“We’re a maritime nation. The reality is we have to move ships around our country,” said Matthew Paxton, president of the Shipbuilders Council of America. “Other countries have lost their shipbuilding capabilities. … The industry atrophied.”

Great Britain - which built ships such as the Queen Mary and the SS Great Britain, the first iron steamer to cross the Atlantic Ocean - produced 134 vessels in 1976 but just four in 2011. Royal Navy tankers are made in South Korea.

The shipbuilding industry can be overlooked, even in the United States, Paxton said.

“It’s kind of out of sight, out of mind,” he said. “Aviation, rail and highways are more visible.”

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Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, http://pghtrib.com

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