PORTSMOUTH - The massive former Pan Am Airlines hangar has sat empty at Portsmouth International Airport at Pease for about a decade since the airline closed up shop here.
David Mullen, executive director of the Pease Development Authority, said during a tour of the more than 4-acre hangar this week that efforts to lease it are complicated by an environmental issue there and the upgrades that need to be done on the hangar.
"Pan Am had it for about 10 years and they made some improvements to it but a lot of the improvements that need to be done involve bringing it up to code today and it's a substantial investment," Mullen said. "Nobody really knows how much it is."
But an area company that looked at it for some aviation companies estimated "they'd be spending somewhere in the neighborhood of $7 million," Mullen said.
Andrew Pomeroy, airport operations manager for the PDA, said the Air Force built the hangar, which is referred to as Hangar 227, in the 1950s.
"It was part of the strategic air command and the Air Force used it for heavy maintenance on bombers and tankers," he said.
During a tour of the hangar, Pomeroy pointed to a cutout in a door of the hanger, which was installed so the Air Force could bring a B-52 bomber inside and have its tail stick outside.
"It was designed so you can stick a B-52 inside and get some work done on it," he said.
There's an office on one side of the hangar that was built so former President George H.W. Bush could work there when Air Force One flew into Pease when he visited his home in Maine.
"He would use it frequently," Mullin said.
He acknowledged it hasn't been easy trying to find a tenant for the hangar, because in addition to the cost of fixing it and the environment issue that the Air Force is now studying, the PDA has voluntary noise restrictions.
"We've been certainly watched by Fed Ex and some others but one of the issues for us is what that kind of overnight operation needs," Mullen said.
The PDA agreed to not have more than three operations from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., Mullen said.
Pomeroy pointed out that with a company like Fed Ex, "they do all their flying overnight." That issue, combined with the others, has made finding a tenant "kind of like looking for a needle in a haystack," Mullen said.
"A lot of maintenance operations typically would locate in a warmer climate anyway so they're not seasonally interrupted by weather like this," Mullen said.
But the hangar still offers companies something that's very hard to find, Mullen said, a 4.5-acre hangar located at an airport that's an hour from Boston and right next to a major highway.
They are hopeful a publicly held company with a major aviation department, like General Dynamics as an example, could be a fit for the site.
"If someone like that is looking for that kind of opportunity, we kind of flow to the top, but unfortunately given its current state, given the investment that needs to be made, and the commitment that would have to be made, it's not been easy to find a replacement for Pan Am," Mullen said, adding, "It's still in relatively good condition."
In fact, the PDA board of directors recently rejected a request from a North Carolina company to sign a lease on the hangar because of the environmental issue. It did so because the Air Force is studying the risk of exposure to anyone using the hangar from trichloroethylene or TCE, a solvent used in the hangar in the 1950s for cleaning engines and degreasing parts, Mullen said.
If they allowed anyone to move in before the Air Force remediated the hanger, the PDA might have to pick up the cost, Mullen said.
"If the Air Force decided we needed to clean it up instead of them, it could cost us millions," he said.
He is still hopeful when the cleanup is finished, the PDA will finally find a tenant.
"It has to be for the right customer coming along, Mullen said. "Certainly, they are not on every corner, but you could have an airline or a maintenance and repair company move in."
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