Massachusetts Airport Seen As Magnet for Growth

The Fitchburg Municipal Airport, in north central Massachusetts, is poised to become a major contributor to the regional economy over the next two decades, an airport planner told the Leominster Planning Board last night.

Armand J. Dufresne, a consultant to the local airport through his work for planners Gale Associates of Bedford, N.H., summarized the facility's 20-year forecast for the Planning Board as part of a presentation on how airports and communities can coexist.

In other business, a developer looking to build a Walgreens pharmacy downtown pledged to help residents of a substance abuse treatment program find new places to live if their home is razed to make way for the store.

Regarding the airport forecast, westward migration of business and the evolution of lower-cost commuter aircraft designed to cater to smaller airports are among the positive signs, Mr. Dufresne said.

The airport, built in 1919, is bordered on three sides by the city of Leominster. Mr. Dufresne outlined the state and federal rules that govern construction near airports, with measures concerning visibility and flight paths near runways.

In recent years there has been debate among officials in Fitchburg and Leominster about the role of the airport, which occupies prime real estate along the municipal border. A number of fatal plane crashes near the facility prompted calls for independent safety inquiries, analyses that found the airport was not to blame in any of the recent crashes. Pilot error was the common theme, investigators said.

Mr. Dufresne told members of the Planning Board last night that commercial and industrial developments are better than houses in close proximity to airports, and said planners had done a good job maintaining that philosophy with construction. There are some homes nearby, he noted, and noise from the airport will always be a factor for the nearest abutters.

Engineer Stephen Mullaney said he had a client looking to develop property on Industrial Road in Leominster but the Federal Aviation Administration said any construction would violate airport standards.

"North Street itself violates the air space," Mr. Mullaney said, expressing frustration with the regulations.

Mr. Dufresne said Mr. Mullaney should speak with the FAA but said he was looking at ways to reconfigure one of the runways near the property in question that would allow regulations to be eased.

The optimistic economic forecast for Fitchburg Municipal Airport is based on the continued westward migration of development from Boston, he explained, dubbing the region "the third wave" after the Route 128 and I-495 corridors.

Mr. Dufresne said Honda and Eclipse are developing "microjets" that would carry six passengers and serve smaller airports like Fitchburg. The concept is families would fly from outlying airports to smaller facilities near cities like Orlando, Fla., at the same cost they would pay to fly larger commercial airlines.

Using the smaller airports, however, would enable the passengers to depart and arrive closer to their intended destinations, rather than having their routes dictated by the congested aviation centers, he said.

The state has only 38 public use airports left, Mr. Dufresne said.

"These are the new endangered species," he said, describing the airport as an asset in recruiting development. "We feel very strong this airport's going to be a major contributor to employers coming into this region."

In other business, the board heard updates from developers proposing a Walgreens pharmacy on the site now occupied by landmark downtown restaurant Monty's Garden.

Officials from developers the Richmond Company pledged to work with clients of the neighboring New Dimensions Residential Treatment Program, whose building is also slated for demolition if the project moves forward. The program, occupying rented space, serves more than 30 clients.

Traffic improvements to the nearby intersection of Routes 12 and 117 are expected to be complete before Walgreens opens its doors, project manager John Stewart told the board. If approved, the pharmacy would open next fall.

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