As base closings loom, Hanscom’s boosters tout its research clout
Word out of Washington, D.C., of another round of military base closings is showcasing Hanscom Air Force Base’s role in fueling the region’s high-tech economy as supporters come to its defense.
With states across the country scrambling to protect their military facilities from cutbacks or closings, Hanscom’s backers are trumpeting the Air Force installation’s role in fueling innovation through millions of dollars in research contracts for companies along Route 128.
Meanwhile, the adjacent Hanscom Field in Bedford has grown into one of the top centers in the country for business aviation, providing a jetport for companies across Greater Boston.
Boosters insist they are anticipating further growth at both facilities, with more corporate jet travel and possibly more military research funding as the Air Force and other branches go increasingly high tech.
“Hanscom Air Force Base is an anchor in Massachusetts and a powerhouse throughout New England,’’ said Chris Anderson, president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council, and president of the Defense Technology Initiative, an arm of the council that is spearheading the drive to protect the base from closure.
A look at the numbers illustrates how important Hanscom has become over the years, Anderson said.
The Air Force complex, spread across a property that extends into Bedford, Concord, Lexington and Lincoln, generates 10,214 jobs and pumps nearly $1.2 billion every year into the local economy, according to a recent study by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s Aeronautics Division.
While Hanscom was rolled out in World War II to train fighter pilots, it later emerged as a major electronic systems research center.
The growth of the Air Force research operation at Hanscom, in turn, helped fuel the rise of the high-technology industry along Route 128 as the military contracted out research work to private companies, Anderson said.
Those close ties are on display today at MITRE Corp.’s 100-acre campus, which abuts Hanscom, as well as the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, whose campus includes part of the base.
There are roughly 115,000 jobs related to the defense industry in Massachusetts, two-thirds connected with research at Hanscom, Anderson said. Roughly $3 billion a year in defense-related contracts flow through Hanscom to local companies, he said.
“You can certainly credit defense spending coming to Massachusetts as a key factor for contributing to the growth of the technology community along 128,’’ he said.
The announcement by the Pentagon late last month that a new round of base closings will be explored has stirred concern across New England, with the region’s congressional delegation vowing to lobby to save Hanscom.
But Anderson said he is unfazed by the Pentagon announcement, seeing the base-closing study as a way to possibly make Hanscom a technology hub not just for the Air Force, but for the other military services as well.
While some states will lose bases, others may see their military installations grow through consolidation.
Anderson said Hanscom’s position as an Air Force research complex in a top high-tech region makes it a good candidate to become a hub in a consolidation.
“You have an opportunity for additional contract dollars to flow through a well- managed and well-directed mission at Hanscom that takes advantage of all the regional capabilities.’’
The Air Force’s bustling research operation is only half the story. Nearby Hanscom Field and its operations are responsible for more than 1,500 jobs, with an economic impact of $250 million a year, according to the state transportation agency’s study.
Some of the companies that are doing research for the Air Force are regular customers at the general aviation facility, yet another case of synergy between the military and civilian sides of the Hanscom property.
However, Hanscom Field, which is overseen by the Massachusetts Port Authority, has also become a regional resource for a wide range of businesses, not just high-tech companies, with Logan International Airport off limits to corporate jets, according to its director, Barbara Patzner.
After dipping during the recession, the number of flights logged by the airfield is slowly picking up again, she said, with takeoffs and landings by business jets rising 2 percent last year.
“I think we will feel we are out of the recession when we get back to 2007 levels,’’ Patzner said. “We are upbeat about the future, but it’s just not going to happen overnight.’’
More growth is in the forecast for Hanscom Field, including a pair of new hangars to house corporate jets, as well as offices and other supporting facilities, according to a Massport spokesman, Richard Walsh.
Rectrix Aviation recently signed an agreement with Massport to build 96,000 square feet of office and hangar space.
The new $15 million complex will provide maintenance services as well as fuel and parking space for jets using Hanscom. The new facility will bring an estimated 100 jobs to Hanscom, including flight crews and aircraft mechanics, according to a Massport statement.
Meanwhile, Jet Aviation, a subsidiary of General Dynamics, will be building a 40,000-square-foot hangar to replace an outdated one, Massport announced.
A number of owners and operators have expressed interest in basing their business jet at Hanscom Field, but the facility has lacked the hangar space to accommodate them, Patzner noted.
“There are lots of aircraft in the New England region that cannot be housed at Hanscom,’’ she said, adding that owners have parked them instead at airports in Connecticut and New Hampshire. “They would be coming home,’’ she said.
The new and more modern hangars will also be large enough to fit some of the newest business jets just rolling off production lines, with longer ranges that could mean a trip to China requires just one stop instead of two or three.
Michael Rosenberg, a Bedford selectman and a member of the Hanscom Area Towns Committee, said local communities remain wary about potential expansion of air traffic at Hanscom.
“We certainly know the port authority wants to develop these sites - that is their job, and the communities are trying to protect their own interests,” he said.
“It’s an airport for our regional economy,’’ said Massport spokesman Walsh.