Airports, Access Roads & Industrial Parks

Several weeks ago, I looked into some ongoing development in the town where I work. To me, it was a glimmer of growth. To others, I had missed the point. Sure, one business is fine for a handful of people. But where is the long-term development? Where are the jobs going to come from?

In the wake of building a new computer, I picked up a new gaming addiction, in the form of Cities: Skylines. It’s a spiritual successor to SimCity, a game that needs almost no introduction. We all played some form of SimCity. I recall the early days when it was just a top-down view of a perfectly-gridded map on which you could build. Then there was SimCity 2000. There were updates after that, and a big-time re-release a few years ago that largely left fans disappointed. Cities: Skylines, despite being very European in design, delivered where the new SimCity fell flat.

Play a city simulator like C:S long enough, and you start thinking like a city planner. You see real structures and try to adapt them in your head for the game mechanics. You see game interactions and wonder how they would play out in a world where chaos and free will rule over strict programming. You see that programming working against you, and you wish you had thought about infrastructure long and hard before you built that highway interchange.

At least it’s easy enough to make upgrades on a digital landscape.

The real world is not quite so malleable. And nowhere is this more true than in New England. I realized it on a trip to Texas, where some of the highway ramps felt like they were half a mile long and a quarter of a mile in the air because, darn it, they had the land to use up and why not? By contrast, most New England towns and cities were built up around a core that was cast hundreds of years ago. Years of growth and evolution have meant that, as modern niceties and conveniences came along, they had to go wherever they could find room. People and houses and businesses don’t just come back after you hit the “demolish” button, after all. And you end up with a four-lane highway carving between buildings, with exit ramps ten feet long because, well, that’s all there was room for.

Where do jobs come from? Industry and commerce, of course. Manchester has plenty of both, for sure. But if you wanted to court big industry, or a major company like that one named for a big river in South America, where would you build a new industrial park?

Manchester-Boston Regional Airport holds some of the answers.

South of the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport sits plenty of land ready for development. All it needed was a better way to get to the highway.

The groundwork for a local airport was set in the late 1920s, with space dedicated on the border of Manchester and Londonderry. For forty or so years, civilian traffic at Manchester Airport shared space with the military. The military base was closed in 1966, but passenger travel continued, and the airfield was renamed Manchester Airport twelve years later. Even so, a drive along Perimeter Road (which did, at one time, encircle the airfield) hinted at the airport’s military history, with abandoned barracks and military buildings here and there.

Progress marched forward, with a new passenger terminal opening in 1994. Southwest Airlines, among others, began serving the airport in 1998, which opened the door for record growth and further upgrades. Runway upgrades broke the continuous path of Perimeter Road, and in the 2000s, forced a redesign of South Willow Street. The uptick in passenger traffic necessitated a redesign of Brown Avenue; the road that once continued straight through to Litchfield now dumped traffic directly into the airport, with “through traffic” taking a right turn to “stay” on Brown Avenue. In 2006, a press release announced that the airport would be renamed Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, after an eyebrow-raising survey that reportedly suggested that travelers thought Manchester was in England.

Even with the improvements of the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was no direct access to the airport from the highway. Not only did this affect passenger arrivals and departures, but it affected the traffic to the air freight terminals to the south of the airport grounds, as well as the fledgling industrial park that had grown up around the new perimeter roads of the airport.

For years, there was talk of building an access road, some sort of multi-lane connector to either Interstate 93 or the Everett Turnpike. Where would it go, and what would have to be displaced to get it there? Who was going to pay for it? Would it have to be a toll road?

Raymond Wieczorek Drive presents a tongue-twisting name for visitors, but its path is direct, feeding cars to the airport since 2011.

After years of deliberation, work commenced in 2007, with exit lanes cutting into the wooded land near the Bedford toll plaza on the Everett Turnpike. Through the southern limits of Bedford, the only obstacles were the parking lot of a long-burned-down restaurant and a parochial school that moved out in the name of eminent domain. Relatively little stood in the path of the highway as it made landfall on the other side of the Merrimack River. Through Londonderry, it only had to work through unsculpted land, where it would tie back into Perimeter Road.

The new road needed a name, and the city turned to former mayor Ray Wieczorek, who was in office during the building of the SNHU Arena and the subsequent rebirth of downtown Manchester. Raymond Wieczorek Drive opened in 2011, four toll-free lanes that tied the Everett Turnpike to Route 3 in Bedford, Route 3A in Manchester heading toward Litchfield, and ultimately the Manchester Airport. Planners took the opportunity to rename the southernmost parts of Perimeter Road; the road had been cleaved into three discontinuous segments, and only the northernmost would keep its original name.

A still-unfinished intersection on Pettengill Road is marked with real-estate signs begging for future growth.

While some Brown Avenue businesses were miffed by the reduction in traffic, the new access road offered new connections to Bedford’s Route 3 Performance Zone, a growing commercial-industrial strip. It also provided an answer for the question I posed earlier: where would you build a new industrial park?

For years, there was an odd intersection south of the airport. You followed South Perimeter Road (or should I say Commerce Avenue?) to Industrial Drive, which went past the former Airborne Express terminal and a few other businesses until it came to a four-way intersection. The intersection had islands and turn lanes, but was missing stop signs, traffic lights, or two ways to go. You could turn left toward Harvey Road. But to the right and straight ahead were nothing but dirt, concrete, and plans for a road called Pettengill Road. For a while, this was speculated to be the route for an airport access road, if it stretched east to I-93.

FedEx and UPS are among the first companies to open up shop on Pettengill Road, with enormous logistics facilities already in operation.

But as Raymond Wieczorek Drive evolved, it was clear that Pettengill Road could tie back into the new access road, opening up acres of untapped land for a new industrial park. Indeed, when Raymond Wieczorek Drive was opened, a four-way intersection even bore a sign for Pettengill Road, which was nothing more than a stub at the intersection.

It took a few years longer to put the plans and the money together, but at last, Pettengill Road was completed, linking the airport access road to Harvey Road and the businesses already south of the airport. And along the newly-constructed road, multiple facilities are already open, two providing logistics services and another an expanded local headquarters for a Lakes Region manufacturer. Plenty of land awaits further development.

At last, this is where the jobs can go.

As a kid, I remember driving around the airport with my grandparents, spending a Sunday afternoon watching planes from the comfort of their conversion van. Those days are long gone; the roads we parked on are airport property now, the perimeter roads serve business over leisure, and a plane arrival is hardly a big deal. But it’s incredible to see how a city evolves, and how it accommodates the forward march of progress within its own boundaries. Unlike a computer game, growth is never as easy as buying another tract of virgin land.

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