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Sky's The Limit At Rentschler Field

November 12, 2006

Even before Rentschler Field closed in 1994, redevelopment proposals for the airfield were flying across the region. The 700-acre East Hartford site was slated to be the new home of an outlet mall, a Six Flags Amusement Park and a NASCAR track. These ideas eventually died out, in large part because of their sheer incompatibility with what's already there, Pratt & Whitney and the United Technologies Research Center.

The challenge then, and still today, is to redevelop the field into something that reinforces P&W and the research center's work and adds to the region's technology job base. That's been the plan since the 1990s and it's critical that we stay with it. The UConn football stadium at Rentschler Field and Cabela's, the high-end outdoor goods store coming to the site, are fine, buzz-generating attractions, but they will work best as pieces of a larger vision.

Rentschler Field is a direct heir to Hartford's great tradition of industrial innovation. The Hartford community needs to find the right anchor business or venture there that will spark another era of invention in the Hartford area. We need high-tech, next-generation activity at Rentschler Field. Anything less will be a failure to take advantage of one of the area's best development opportunities in a generation.

The airfield's link to Hartford history is compelling, and shouldn't be ignored. Francis Pratt and Amos Whitney were machinists at Sam Colt's massive manufacturing enterprise along the Connecticut River, which was an informal school for many future industrialists. Pratt and Whitney formed their own machine tool company in 1860 and are credited with many innovations in interchangeability and machine metrics. When Pratt & Whitney Machine Tool experienced a slowdown after World War I, leaving it with available skilled workers and factory space, a young businessman came to Hartford with an idea to fill the void.

Frederick B. Rentschler arrived at P&W with plans to build an air-cooled engine that would revolutionize the aircraft market. P&W provided him with $250,000 and space within its Hartford complex to produce what would be known as the Wasp engine. The Wasp zoomed past the competition.

Pratt & Whitney Aircraft separated from the tool company, expanded to East Hartford in 1930, and begat United Aircraft and United Technologies. Its airstrip became the testing ground for P&W, Chance Vought, Boeing and others in the first part of the 20th century. It was regularly used for aircraft testing by UTC until the 1990s.

The lesson in this chain of events is relevant today. A company spins off a new technology, which prospers and adds greatly to the region's identity and prosperity. The challenge is to find a new venture for Rentschler Field that will continue this history of innovation and separate it from every other tech park development in the country.

There are models around the country of imaginative and successful redevelopment of former industrial and military properties, such as the the Presidio in San Francisco and its lead anchor LucasFilm, the reuse of the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York as a studio complex and industrial incubator, and the mixed-use redevelopment of the Weymouth Naval Station in South Weymouth, Mass.

A project with striking parallels to Rentschler is Moffett Field in Sunnyvale, Calif. The airfield was decommissioned as a military base in the early 1990s. Most of the activity around the field died out after the official closing in 1994, except for the Ames NASA Research Center, which continued operations. Those were the circumstances when the local community and NASA put together an initiative in 1996 to redevelop Moffett Field into something that redefined and reinforced the research center's activity.

In 1998, NASA created a research park at the field and in 2002 began to form partnerships with a variety of academic and industrial groups from around the country. Eventually satellite branches of Carnegie Mellon University and Santa Clara University were among the institutions that moved to the field. And finally, in 2005, the field found its key anchor when nearby Google decided to partner with NASA and announced plans to build a new campus at Moffett Field.

The similar challenge is to find the right anchor for Rentschler Field. U.S. Rep. John Larson has been the leader of the effort to create a new technology framework at the East Hartford site. In 2002, he created the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology, an aerospace-focused technology incubator group that hopes to create spin-off businesses in aerospace and energy-related technologies. The technology center is moving ahead with fuel cell, laser and other initiatives.

In 2003, UTC named lawyer-turned-developer Dan Matos as the developer of Rentschler Field. The Matos Group produced a master plan in 2005 that called for a sustainable technology community, a "town within a town."

It would have housing, retail and recreational amenities such as bike paths, all to support technology businesses on the site.

"The whole project is predicated on developing a place that will attract technology jobs," Matos said. "We are absolutely committed to that and so is UTC." Thus the last piece of this puzzle is that key business, or package of businesses, that will bring this vision to life.

Rentschler Field's future could involve a plethora of things: nanotechnology, fuel cells, laser technology or something that's percolating in some researcher's imagination. One of the more intriguing aerospace ventures that`s emerging as a possibility for Rentschler Field is microjet research and development. It's a budding sector that has already been embraced by one of UTC's primary competitors, General Electric. In 2004, GE established a joint venture with Honda to produce the HondaJet, a "very light jet" that they hope to mass-produce as a cheaper alternative to luxury jet travel and as a base aircraft for a visionary national air taxi system.

UTC's strongest link with very light jets is Pratt & Whitney's involvement with microjet pioneer Eclipse Aviation, whose Eclipse 500 aircraft was recently certified by the FAA and is powered by two P&W Canada engines. Could United Technologies take the next step and make microjet R&D a major anchor at Rentschler Field? Could this company create another breakthrough invention in the Hartford area?

Matos has begun talks with technology companies. So over the next few months, the Hartford community needs to think about and answer one very vital question: What innovative industry can be spawned at Rentschler Field?

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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