Airport becomes asset for high-tech firms

Wedged between Boston's inner harbor and Logan International Airport, a barren plot of land on the edge of the airport's taxiway Bravo soon will be hosting the likes of microchips and lasers.

The $130 million Massachusetts Technology Center (MTC), a first-of-its-kind complex for high-technology companies, will bring dozens of these firms under one roof to cut costs and speed access to markets and supplies.

The facility also will come under the airport's Foreign Trade Zone - a federally designated area where products are exempt from customs inspection and import duties. The zone is especially advantageous for high-tech firms. For example, a company could import various electronic components from the Far East, assemble them at the new center, and ship the finished computers to markets in Europe.

''This is a significant innovation,'' says William Thurston, president of GenRad Inc. of Waltham, Mass., and chairman of the Massachusetts High-Technology Council. ''Logan airport is a major commercial asset, especially for high-tech companies. This will hone our competitive edge.''

Developers of the property and Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport), the state agency that runs the airport, foresee a complex similar to a scaled-down version of Japan's ''science city'' at Tsukuba, 37 miles from Tokyo. Like science city, MTC will provide administration offices, space for assembly, warehouses, and labs for research and development, but will have the advantage of being in a duty-free zone and next door to a major transportation center.

Backers of the facility say they hope it will lure new US and foreign high-tech companies to the area, as well as attract established firms. They say advantages of such an arrangement could prove considerable for high-tech firms, already worried that the Japanese may do to the domestic computer market what they did to the automobile market.

Although no one expects the facility to single-handedly neutralize Japanese competition, industry leaders do see the MTC as an acknowledgment by government - in this case state government - that high technology is moving to center stage in the economy and deserves a bit more attention. With much of the US high-tech industry centered in two regions - California's ''Silicon Valley'' and the Boston area - the advent of a major new facility here is seen as an important step for the industry as a whole.

High-tech firms situated at an international airport can improve control over breakage and pilfering during shipping - costly losses that are of increasing concern to the industry. Moreover, the demand for in-person inspection of expensive equipment by customers and the need for efficient servicing operations makes the airport an ideal location.

In addition, Massport and industry officials are pointing to MTC as a model of industry-government cooperation. The companies will stimulate business at the airport and, in exchange, Massport has agreed to provide access roads and on-site customs inspection.

''If you ask most executives, they'll tell you they would prefer as little government intervention as possible in the high-tech industry,'' says Anthony Pangaro, general partner of Macomber Development Associates, developers of MTC. ''But I think in this case . . . government and industry are striking the right balance between what helps and what hinders. We're seeing cooperation, not interference.''

Economists and others see the decision to proceed with MTC as evidence of the region's resolve to avoid repeating the mistakes that caused textile mills and manufacturing industries to abandon New England in favor of the Sunbelt. Some observers say the center will help fend off competition and secure New England's technological leadership well into the 21st century.

''You have to keep pace with the market,'' Mr. Pangaro says. ''The decision of older industries to move south was an economic one. This time, we're offering the right incentives. By making the climate very attractive for high-tech firms, we won't lose them.''

Groundbreaking is scheduled for spring. The facility, to be integrated with a new air cargo complex, should be completed in 1990.

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