As the last century dragged to a close, there was no dispute about who--or what--was Portland's biggest celebrity. Dry Dock 4 was as long as two-and-a-half football fields, wider than five TriMet buses, and weighed in at a smidgen under 26,000 tons.

A dry dock, for those who unaccountably skipped WW's near-obsessive coverage, is something like a floating mechanic's bay for ships. Sink the dry dock, pull an ailing tanker or cruise ship on top, re-float the dock, and let the repairs begin.

The Port of Portland built Dry Dock 4 in 1976 at a cost to taxpayers of $84 million. It was the largest dry dock in North America and anchored 2,000 well-paid union jobs.

But beginning in the '80s, the economics of the ship-repair business began to tilt away from Portland--and the rest of the nation. Ship repair is labor-intensive, and ships can easily be dispatched to third-world nations where workers are willing to toil for chum.

For years, the Port lost money on the gargantuan dock, which it rented out, along with the 90-acre Swan Island shipyard, to a series of private contractors.

The last and smartest of the bunch, Cascade General CEO Frank Foti, spent four years trying to convince the Port to sell him the shipyard. In what was either a misguided attempt to preserve a few hundred jobs or an act of monumental incompetence, the Port in 2000 agreed to hand Foti 57 acres of waterfront property, plus tons of machinery, buildings and other assets, for $30.5 million.

A few months later, Foti turned around and resold the Dry Dock 4 portion to the Grand Bahama Shipyard for a cool $26.5 million--meaning he wound up with a huge tract of riverfront land and an operating business at a bargain-basement price.

Critics predicted Foti would scrap the business, but to his credit, his company is still fixing ships, processing dirty bilge water and employing up to 350 people at Swan Island.

He took a lot of heat for selling the dock but says the economics of ship repair are grim.

"The tanker business is gone, and there was never going to be anything anybody could have done to bring it back," Foti says. "The only way I'd take that dock back is with a big subsidy."

But the City of Portland has shown that it would rather subsidize money-losing baseball teams and Pearl District theaters than blue-collar jobs. And even though large warships have become more critical in the past three years, there's been very little additional repair work, Foti says.

After an epic 22,000-mile voyage across the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic--it was too big to fit through the Panama Canal--Dry Dock 4 is now anchored at Freeport, Grand Bahama, where it is busier than a signature gatherer in Pioneer Square. "We're very pleased that it's here," says Grand Bahama's operations manager, David Dalgleish.