Pease International Tradeport Takes Off

  • Published
  • By Susan Wolbarst
  • AFRPA / PA
Of all the closed and converted Air Force bases in the U.S., Pease International Tradeport in Portsmouth, New Hampshire is one of a kind, with ideal conditions for germinating its flourishing redevelopment. The Air Force Real Property Agency worked closely with the community to facilitate property transfer once the base closed in 1991. Today, about 250 businesses employ some 7,000 workers at Pease. The regional impact of wages there is about $500 million, five times the amount when it was Pease Air Force Base. The Tradeport also generates about $15.2 million in annual revenue, some $10 million of which goes to the state of New Hampshire and $4.9 million to the city of Portsmouth.

Several unique circumstances have bolstered Pease's successful transformation.

New Hampshire, a tiny state with only 1.3 million people, has the lowest tax burden in the U.S. New Hampshire has no general sales tax or income tax on an individual's W-2 wages. Other positives for business development: New Hampshire has the highest standard of living in the U.S. and the second-lowest crime rate in the country. And it ranks eighth in the country for percentage of people over age 25 with a bachelor's degree or higher, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Pease Development Authority, which governs development at the Tradeport, was created by the New Hampshire state legislature. PDA has a seven-member board, none can be elected officials. Each is appointed by a different entity: the chairman is appointed by the governor and executive council, the vice chair by the city of Portsmouth and town of Newington, the treasurer by the New Hampshire Speaker of the House, etc. Pease enjoys autonomous zoning within the Tradeport.

Combine these attributes with the real estate mantra of location (on the state's 13-mile-long coast), location (within two hours of Boston by car or bus), location (in a historic and attractive city of 25,000 on a main Interstate), to see the recipe that's created such a significant economic engine for the state.

Pease served as an Air Force Base from 1956-1991. David Mullen, executive director of the PDA for the past year, says the PDA has 53 full-time employees and another 64 part-time or seasonal employees. "As an Air Force Base, it supposedly had the impact of about $100 million" (annually), he said. The regional impact of wages from Tradeport businesses is approximately five times as much, Mullen says.

The 3000-acre Tradeport campus includes a variety of tenants, such as John Hancock Financial Services, a Red Hook Brewery with restaurant, facilities of six colleges, the U.S. Department of State Passport Center and Visa Center, Newmarket International Inc. (which makes sales and catering software for the hospitality industry), and Salient Surgical Technologies, which produces, "advanced energy technologies designed to improve patient outcomes, simplify the surgeon's work and lower costs for hospitals." Lonza Biologics, a Swiss company supplying products and services to the pharmaceutical, healthcare and life science industries, is one of the largest employers at Pease. Lonza employs 650 people there and plans to expand.
Like other closed Air Force bases, Pease is a Superfund site, where 85 sites were identified for remediation. Development occurring on the former base, which closed in 1991, has been mindful of this fact. For example, no residential development is permitted.

Currently, with all remediation measures operating properly and successfully, there is no Air Force presence at Pease. Maria Stowell, manager of engineering for the PDA, says the Air Force Real Property Agency was "very involved in the early days" of the cleanup. She said AFRPA worked side by side with builders and with contractors hired to test, monitor and remediate. That partnership continues, Stowell said. AFRPA and AFCEE (Air Force Center for Engineering and the Environment) personnel at the former Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, Maine oversee the ongoing environmental cleanup and monitoring effort. They are also consulted whenever digging is planned.

Visiting Pease, one is struck by how little evidence exists that it was ever a military base at all. Most of the buildings, except for some near the airport, are new. Out of 3,000 acres, about 600 were "developable," according to Mullen. Only 160 acres which can still be developed remain.

The Air Force Real Property Agency transferred a big chunk of the land -- 1,054 acres -- to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which established the Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge in an area formerly used to store weapons. The road there used to lead to weapons storage bunkers. Now hiking trails, one of them wheelchair-accessible, wind through the woods. Deer, fox, beaver, porcupine, bald eagles, wild turkeys, songbirds and migratory birds live there and some of the bunkers have been converted to bat habitat.

Pease also houses a 27-hole public golf course, divided into nine and 18 holes. A $2.3 million clubhouse, featuring a geo-thermal heating and cooling system, recently opened. Golf course fees generated about $2.6 million in revenue in 2009.

Despite the bustle in much of the Tradeport, the Portsmouth International Airport at Pease is eerily deserted. Passenger and air freight carriers have come and gone over the years. Recruiting a new passenger airline is a major challenge in an area already served by three airports within about an hour's drive: Boston's Logan Airport, Maine's Portland Jetport and Manchester Airport in New Hampshire. Air freight is usually carried in the belly of passenger planes, Mullen explained.

The Pease transit hub is popular with commuters catching 54-passenger buses arriving hourly to take them down I-95 to Boston and Logan Airport. The first 400-space parking lot built there was "completely packed" when it opened, Mullen said, so another 450 spaces were added to handle demand.

Of all the installations affected during five rounds of Base Realignment and Closure, Pease is one of the most successful in its 19-year-old incarnation as a business center. And the PDA has managed Pease so capably that the state of New Hampshire expanded its authority by merging the Division of Ports and Harbors into the PDA in 2001. Ports and Harbors generated some $1.6 million in fees last year. In 2009, the state also made PDA responsible for Skyhaven Airport, located in Rochester, New Hampshire.

The AFRPA is responsible for remediation and property transfer at 40 former Air Force installations throughout the United States under the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) program. At the height of BRAC, AFRPA managed 87,000 acres - about 137 square miles of property. Since the first BRAC in 1988, the agency has transferred 88 percent, or more than 116 square miles of land, to local communities for public use - twice the area of Washington, D.C.