Tuesday morning could bring a different sort of "March Madness" to Hampton Roads.
The hottest seat in town, at least in maritime circles, will be the boardroom of the Virginia Port Authority at the World Trade Center in Norfolk.
The first big item on the Port Authority's agenda is the one everybody has been anticipating for months: a critical vote on how the port will be run for the next several decades, marking the end of a process that began nearly a year ago.
The board is scheduled to review the value of unsolicited proposals from two private entities -- APM Terminals Inc. and a group headed by JPMorgan Chase & Co. -- offering the state billions of dollars over decades in exchange for the right to operate the authority's terminals.
The offers will be weighed against the merit of sticking with Virginia International Terminals Inc., the tax-exempt company that has served as the port's operator for 30 years.
In recent months, a plan has taken shape to make VIT more answerable and transparent to state policymakers.
The betting on the street is that the authority's board on Tuesday will choose that evolution, rather than a revolution, in how the port is run.
But the drama over the past year had its share of twists and turns. And the companies that want to replace VIT haven't thrown in the towel. So nothing is certain until the vote is taken on Tuesday.
In the meantime, let's recap how we got to this juncture and what's at stake.
Q. How did this all begin?
It's a long story, the short version of which started last spring. That's when APM Terminals filed a proposal with the state, offering it up to nearly $4 billion in today's dollars in exchange for taking over as the operator of the port's container terminals.
The deal would include giving the authority APM's $540 million container terminal in Portsmouth, which the authority began renting in 2010 at rates that will climb to more than $70 million a year by the time the lease expires in 2030.
The state announced the details on May 23.
Because the offer was made under Virginia's public-private partnership law, it set in motion a series of required actions by the state, including seeking other proposals.
A couple of other offers came in, one from The Carlyle Group, which was later withdrawn, and another from a Deutsche Bank affiliate called RREEF America LLC.
The RREEF proposal has since morphed into one from an entity called Virginia Port Partners LLC, composed of JPMorgan IIF Acquisitions LLC and Maher Terminals LLC, a New Jersey-based terminal operator. The group valued its offer at $3.1 billion, with an upfront "concession fee" of $400 million.
VIT filed its own proposal, to keep its job.
Q. With the port such an important asset to the state, putting its operation up for competition is something that everybody must support. Right?
True, the port is a vital cog in Virginia's economy. In Hampton Roads alone, it supports tens of thousands of jobs, and the spinoff is much greater across the state.
But there's also an entrenched port community that's accustomed to dealing with VIT and argues that the agency is doing a good job overall. And that community, coordinated by the Virginia Maritime Association, has pushed back hard against the idea of a major change.
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