Officials: Airport needs cash to take off
July 16, 2013
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  • FITCHBURG — City and state officials say an infusion of state and federal money could help Fitchburg Municipal Airport provide a jet-powered boost to the area’s economic development.
    They see opportunities to increase airport use by corporate jets and bring more businesses to the area as a result, and are seeking grant funds to both lengthen the airport’s runway and build a new, modern terminal building.

    State Secretary of Transportation Richard Davey, along with members of the state Department of Transportation Aeronautics Division, visited the airport Monday afternoon while the department’s aviation manager conducted an annual runway pavement inspection. For Davey, it was also an opportunity to witness what happens at the airport and see firsthand the case city officials are making for their goals. He aims to visit all 36 municipal airports throughout the state before the end of Gov. Deval Patrick’s last term in office, to ensure that the entire state is benefiting from any available funding, not just the Boston area.

    “We’re really getting out in every corner of state and seeing how we can help cities and towns do their job,” Davey said.

    Interim Airport Manager Scott Ellis said Fitchburg Municipal Airport is working with the Federal Aviation Administration, MassDOT and some other agencies to obtain grant funding for major projects that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. He said the airport has already benefited from some grant funding that has allowed the preliminary studies needed to begin work on extending the runway length from 4,500 to 5,000 feet. In the next couple of years, Ellis said, the airport should be able to complete the project, which has been discussed, in some form or another, since 1957.

    It may only be an extra 500 feet, but lengthening the runway by that amount will open Fitchburg Municipal Airport up to much more use by corporate jets, Ellis said. It is a common corporate policy, he said, not to use runways shorter than 5,000 feet.

    Currently, Ellis said, there are already some corporations, such as Utz Quality Foods Inc., that fly in and out for meetings so often they actually leave a company car in the parking lot. He wants to see this become a common practice for other companies.

    “The expansion of the terminal and the runway is really to send a strong signal to both large and small businesses that really do business around the region, around the country, even globally, that this is a place for them to locate,” said Mayor Lisa Wong.

    If the city is going to continue to attract and retain national and global businesses, she said, it needs to have a way that executives can move quickly. She sees the airport as putting the city on the map from a business standpoint, especially when paired with rail access for transporting goods.

    Airport Commissioner Peter Kettle said the airport’s proximity to several major highways is advantageous and makes it a prime location for expansion.

    Wong said the current Airport Commission is one of the best the city has seen, and support is growing for the pursuits of the airport. She said it also has a strong interim manager, and efforts are under way to hire a full-time manager.

    Wong believes the airport to be the centerpiece of a regional economic development strategy, and wants to work with state officials to make sure Fitchburg’s is part of the state’s plan.

    Davey agreed with Wong that other transportation infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, highways and public transit are more often at the forefront, and that little discussion occurs over the economic development impact of airports, despite there being 125,000 jobs throughout the state related directly or indirectly to aviation, as well as almost $13 billion in economic activity.

    “That’s significant and huge,” Davey said.

    He noted that Patrick’s transportation program calls for state investments in airports, with a focus on safety improvements and work that will set airports up as economic gateways for cities and towns. Under Patrick’s administration, Davey said, the capital funding available for airports has grown from $9 million to $15 million.

    Ellis said most airport grants include funding from both the FAA and the state, and then the airport usually has to come up with about 2.5 percent — and that’s not a problem for the city, because the airport is one of only a handful of smaller airports that is completely self-supporting. He said the majority of its revenue comes from hangar rent, businesses leasing buildings on-site and aviation fuel sales, which average about 100,000 gallons per year.

    Airport Commissioner Steve Brousseau said the commission has set a goal to create more partnerships and bring in more businesses, such as Skyline Aviation, a charter company that will relocate from Worcester to Fitchburg in the near future.