The Clock is Ticking on New Pact for Worcester Regional Airport

It is therefore a given that the next operating agreement with Massport should lead to the authority taking title to the 1,300- acre facility.

Massport, a semi-autonomous agency whose board members are appointed by the governor, "is being operated like a business, with a focus on fiscal health," said Mr. Mulligan, president of Cutler Associates, a Worcester-based design and construction company. He was appointed to the board in September because of his long expertise in the construction trade. John Quelch, a professor and associate dean at Harvard Business School, is board chairman. Other members come from business, industry, the labor movement and government. Ranch Kimball, now a hospital administrator, is the former state secretary of economic development.

Mr. Mulligan surprised me by articulating the sentiment frequently voiced by former Massport CEO Craig Coy: "Massport has fulfilled its obligation to Worcester. Unfortunately the same cannot be said about the city, which refused to even consider an east-west connector road. We would be kidding ourselves if we believed the airport can be successful without an access road."

An unknown factor is the role of the current state administration. Gov. William F. Weld brought Massport to Worcester. Paul Cellucci considered the Worcester airport an integral part of a regional transportation strategy. So did Jane M. Swift, who had worked at Massport before becoming governor. Mitt Romney did not believe Worcester needed a commercial airport, and he treated it with benign neglect. There have been indications that the political power trio of Deval L. Patrick, Jim McGovern and Tim Murray is paying attention. Bernard Cohen, the current secretary of transportation, is said to favor Massport takeover. Leslie Kirwan, secretary of administration and finance, actually came from Massport. All that should help.

Mr. O'Brien said he didn't want to "give away" the airport. He expects "fair market value" for the land and assets, as well as many other benefits. Indeed, it is the manager's responsibility to see that the city gets the best possible deal, and he has a reputation as a tough bargainer.

However, Worcester's expectations should be realistic. There is no long line of suitors banging on the door, eager to take on an airport that loses money, has no airlines, cannot be sold and needs infrastructure improvement. Under its current leadership, Massport has been known for prudent fiscal management.

Revealing bargaining details while negotiations are under way would be unwise. But a certain openness is warranted in the public arena. The immediate goal is to extend the operating agreement and keep Massport's financial support, with specific steps leading to a transfer of ownership. There is much to be done. The sooner the process moves from the talking stage to formal negotiations, with teams of experts around the table, the better. The clock is ticking.

Robert Z. Nemeth's column appears regularly in the Sunday Telegram. He has served on the Worcester Regional Airport Commission for the last eight years.

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