Landing General Electric Co. has Boston business leaders hopeful that its headquarters can attract other employers, boost local charities, and raise the city’s global profile.
And, of course, there are the helicopters.
The downtown business community has gone without a public-use helipad for more than 15 years. But that could be about to change. GE’s pending arrival has jump-started the conversation about building one. The pitch to bring the company here included the promise that its future headquarters in the Seaport area — GE hasn’t picked a precise site yet — would be helipad-accessible.
“Boston is one of the few major cities that I’ve visited that doesn’t have some form of downtown heliport capacity,” said Jim Rooney, chief executive of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. “It’s time to consider this as a transportation system amenity.”
To attract GE, city and state officials agreed to help facilitate the construction of a helipad in Boston. GE’s incentive package includes up to $120 million in state-funded infrastructure improvements, a figure that could include money for “public helicopter landing facilities,” according to documents released by Governor Charlie Baker’s office Wednesday.
The documents also stipulate that GE be allowed to park one jet and one helicopter at Logan International Airport, along with as many as six jets at Hanscom Field in Bedford. GE would be required to pay for that space.
Currently, helicopters can land at a number of city hospitals in Boston, but those pads are used for medical flights. (The Boston Globe has a little-used landing pad on its roof, and WBZ has one, as well.)
If a commercial helipad gets built, GE would not be the only user. Proponents say such a facility would be helpful for quickly shuttling executives out of Boston to Hanscom, for example, where a number of corporate jets are housed. Movie and news crews could use it as a staging point, along with emergency personnel, as a backup location. There’s the potential for aerial tours, as well.
“We haven’t had a big push from the right people [until now], to be honest with you,” said Christopher Donovan, president of Boston Executive Helicopters in Norwood. “A company like GE has the bigger need and the bigger sway to get something like that done.”
A helicopter flight can also be a simpler and faster way to travel to Manhattan than flying, driving, or taking a train.
“Getting to and from the airport in Boston, that’s not necessarily so bad, but in New York, that’s a horror show,” said Wesley Verkaart, who owns the Heliops helicopter service in Plymouth.
Rooney, the chamber’s chief executive, said several local employers, including MassMutual and EMC Corp., have expressed an interest in a Boston helipad over the years. Rooney said that he expects the chamber to advocate for one now that GE’s arrival is on the horizon.
Helicopter operators at suburban airports said they regularly get requests to fly into downtown Boston. They have to say no or land at Logan, on the other side of the harbor and farther from the city’s main business district. Logan, on average, sees three or four helicopter departures and arrivals a day.
“It’s embarrassing when people call and say, ‘Can I get into the city?’ ” Donovan said.
GE’s current headquarters in Fairfield, Conn., includes a helipad, so it’s natural that company executives would want one in Boston. Company spokeswoman Jennifer Erickson declined to comment, other than to say “the proposed public helipad would improve transportation and infrastructure in the Seaport area, benefiting the city of Boston as well as GE.”
This is a far cry from the helicopter industry’s heyday in the 1980s, said Greg Harville, president of the New England Helicopter Council. That’s when Digital Equipment Corp. had a full fleet of helicopters, ferrying employees to and from Boston, Maynard, and other locations. Big local companies such as Millipore, Bank of Boston, and Data General also used helicopters at the time, he said.
Corporate helicopter use waned during the recession of the early 1990s, Harville said, but the real blow came in 1999, when the city’s two main helipads closed. A full-service heliport was the first to go, its land on Fargo Street in South Boston taken by eminent domain for construction of the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center. Then, at the end of that year, a helipad on Nashua Street closed to make way for the Nashua Street Park, he said.
For years, Harville’s group has tried to get another helipad in Boston. One was discussed as part of a potential addition to the South Boston convention center, but that expansion is now on hold. The Menino administration tabled plans for one in the South Boston Waterfront’s industrial park in 2008 after neighbors objected, worried about noise.
The location of a helipad could depend on the site that GE picks for its headquarters. A portion of an open area along Fort Point Channel, behind one of the buildings that GE is considering, could be used, for example. Another area that has been mentioned is on the downtown side of the channel, near South Station and the Leather District.
City Councilor Michael Flaherty, who fought the 2008 helipad proposal, said he would fight another one if it’s proposed in his South Boston neighborhood.
“Other than medical emergencies and public safety uses, helicopters are a luxury whose impacts are a burden on a residential neighborhood,” Flaherty said.