PORTSMOUTH — "It was a good run."
That’s how David Mullen summed up 22 years at Pease International Tradeport, where he has served as deputy director, acting director and executive director of the Pease Development Authority.
He made the comment to the PDA Board of Directors at its May 21 meeting after it accepted his letter of resignation as he prepared to retire effective June 30.
"I've always tried to stay reasonably anonymous. I wasn't in it for the credit," Mullen said in an interview afterward. "It's been very much a team effort, which I want to keep emphasizing because you don't do this sort of thing alone. You can do it with a group of people who are committed to doing the things they need to do to be successful."
Mullen came to the tradeport in 1998 as its director of marketing and economic development after working for eight years as the state industrial representative with the former N.H. Department of Economic Development. In 2003, he took on the additional role as deputy executive director, and served two stints as acting director, before the 2009 appointment as executive director.
The U.S. Air Force in 1991 closed the base named for Harl Pease, a Plymouth native and World War II B-17 pilot who earned the Congressional Medal of Honor. The government turned the base over to the state for commercial development, under the stewardship of the PDA.
In the early days, the infrastructure needed the attention, simple things like getting the lights to work and the heat to run in buildings that, by the time the Air Force vacated, had been left largely unrepaired.
"You had one electric meter serving the entirety of the property, and you had two steam plants that piped steam through all these asbestos-coated pipes that ran all over the property. The first steam plant malfunctioned, and since the Air Force was leaving it didn’t fix it. It wasn’t too long before the second steam plant failed," Mullen said.
"So here's this need to get the buildings that were worth saving their own heat and electricity so that you keep them alive, or they won’t survive our New England weather if they're not kept up," he added.
From that beginning, the tradeport grew into what it is today:
-- 4.86 million square feet of commercial and industrial space developed;
-- Some 250 companies employing 10,500 direct hires with another 5,125 indirect hires resulting from companies not located at Pease, but doing business with companies at the tradeport;
-- $700 million in annual wages;
-- $16 million in business profits taxes and rooms and meals taxes paid annually to the state;
-- Almost $7 million paid each year to the city of Portsmouth in municipal services fees.
The vacancy rate is a scant 2.3% and there are but four parcels totaling 22.7 acres left for commercial-industrial development.
With the commercial development of the tradeport all but complete, according to Mullen, it was important for his successor to concentrate on development and advancement of the Portsmouth International Airport at Pease. That is why Paul Brean was hired in 2017 as the airport director with the expressed purpose of succeeding Mullen as executive director.
"I’m basically a real estate guy, not an airport guy," Mullen said. "Gaining the attraction of people who would use the airport – various airlines, various entities – is really a different marketing effort than what I do."
Brean worked at the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan International Airport, for 21 years before coming to Pease. "He knows the industry, so it was appropriate for us to refocus that the next executive director should be more airport related, and Paul is that guy," Mullen said.
He points out the original charter conferring the land from the U.S. government to the state was contingent upon development revenues going to support airport operations. In addition to commercial airline traffic, Pease is home to the 157th N.H. Air National Guard refueling squadron.
"All the land leases from commercial property is considered airport revenue," Mullen said. "The purpose of this is to make the airport as self-sustaining as possible. The goal, too, would be to reduce the costs that users have to pay to take advantage of the airport."
Unlike other airports, Pease does not charge landing fees. The airport has one current commercial airline, Allegiant, which flies to Florida and South Carolina.
"The optimum arrangement would be to have connections to other hubs, domestically, but also internationally," Mullen said.
"We would like to be able to continue to offer a low-cost environment in which to operate. We don't have terminal fees, we don't have passenger facilities fees. We basically have a small fuel flowage charge, which is minimal compared to the market we're in. And the same thing with parking – $7 a day is a bargain," he added.
His retirement removes a long commute from his work-day equation – from Henniker, originally, then from Brookfield, where he moved in 2013. He did a complete renovation of that house in Brookfield, and retirement will give him an opportunity to finish some projects yet undone. He keeps a 30-foot sailboat in Osterville on Cape Cod that will get some attention.
He’ll also probably take down a pine tree or two on the property, something he does on his own after learning how to fell a tree from a farmer acquaintance long ago. At age 70, he admits to having to take a break or two during the work, but he said his accuracy is still dead on. (Have him tell you the story of how he marked his driveway with the spot where he intended to fell a 110-foot pine. Needless to say, he said his wife was impressed.)
He not only credits staff for helping the tradeport get to where it is today, but also the developers who invested in the property. "Without the developer component, where they put their money on the line, we never would have been successful here," Mullen said. "Fortunately, because of location, location, location, and access – we have three ways onto the tradeport – the demand for Pease has always been great."
He told the PDA directors in his resignation letter that the agency is well positioned for success in the years ahead.
"With nearly 22 years of service to the PDA I have to say in my experience there has never been a dull day at Pease," he wrote. "Working together with the support of past and present board members, PDA staff and our developer partners, we have accomplished tremendous economic success for the Seacoast region and the state."