BRUNSWICK, Maine — Petty Officer Leonard Bell helped close the Navy Reserve Center in Portland in 2002 during his last tour in Maine. Then he helped move boxes out of the Naval Operational Support Center at Brunswick Naval Air Station in 2009 as one of the first steps in the closure of the base.
When he went overseas to work at a Navy hospital in Kuwait in April of last year, he said, the Brunswick base was still “almost full — it was still very alive.”
When he returned to Brunswick five months later, he saw a very different place. It was sparsely populated and emptying quickly. The week he returned, he was put to work helping close yet another Maine military building, this time the personnel support building in which his unit was based.
On Tuesday, Bell will sing the National Anthem during the disestablishment ceremony for Brunswick Naval Air Station, belting out the final notes in the base’s six decades in the Mid-coast region.
“This means a little bit more,” said Bell, who has twice been stationed in Brunswick and is now one of only 10 active-duty sailors left there, of his next singing assignment. “It’s kind of sad in a sense, because I knew what it was like when it was alive. It’s the end of an era, and I got to be a part of that era.”
There have been times to celebrate openly about developments in the process of converting the Brunswick Naval Air Station property for civilian reuse. Among them have been celebratory announcements about companies moving to the area with promises of high-paying jobs.
On Tuesday, the atmosphere will be more somber, say those close to the base redevelopment process. At 1:30 p.m. that day, the Navy will hold its disestablishment ceremony for the base, officially marking the end of a military installation which first opened in 1943.
As many as a dozen former base commanding officers are expected to attend the event, organizers say, as well as retirees and veterans in the community. Rear Adm. Mark Boensel, commander, Navy Region Mid-Atlantic, and retired Rear Adm. Harry Rich will attend, as will Gov. Paul LePage and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine.
“I think it will be solemn,” said Arthur Mayo, chairman of the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority (MRRA) board of trustees. “It is a solemn occasion. (The U.S. Navy has) been there for almost 60 years and they’re leaving. We’ve had celebrations along the way, but there will be a lot of people there Tuesday who will be very sad.”
MRRA is the organization charged with overseeing civilian redevelopment of the 3,200-acre property, and will host a reception for the public after the disestablishment ceremony Tuesday.
Steve Levesque, executive director of MRRA, said the occasion will be one for remembering the Navy’s nearly six-decade presence in the town. Since the federal Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) commission in 2005 recommended closure of the base, Levesque said, local Navy leaders have been innovative in helping civilian groups prepare to take over the property.
Capt. William Fitzgerald, the final commanding officer of the air station, helped usher through a plan to allow private companies to begin leasing vacated Navy buildings “inside the fence” even before the official base closure — a practice never previously allowed in base shutdowns around the country, Levesque said. The process enabled MRRA to get a head start on replacing the 5,000 jobs estimated to be lost in the Navy’s departure.
“There’s going to be a lot of remembrances,” Levesque said Thursday. “It represents the end of an era, but I think there’s also going to be a theme of (appreciating) the Navy for having done a great job in helping with the transition and closing the base. The fact that we have six or seven businesses on the base when the base hasn’t closed yet says an awful lot about the process that the Navy has afforded.”
For his part in the process, Fitzgerald won the prestigious Joshua Chamberlain Award, which honors individuals who have helped foster positive relations between the Navy and civilian Mid-coast community. The town of Brunswick subsequently named a former base parcel the Captain William A. Fitzgerald, USN, Recreation and Conservation Area.”
“Anyone who has ever been associated with NAS Brunswick — military or civilian — will certainly feel some sadness at the disestablishment ceremony,” Fitzgerald said. “How can you not after something that has been a fixture of the area for 68 years goes away? So many memories are a part of this great naval air station for so many people. You can’t help but feel nostalgic. But for me, the disestablishment ceremony is an opportunity to celebrate the legacy of NAS Brunswick, to thank the community who hosted the military here for decades, and to look forward to its next chapter as Brunswick Landing.”
Levesque acknowledged the Tuesday event will be “a bit melancholy.”
“It represents the finality of the decision,” he said. “We’ve all been working toward this. MRRA’s efforts have been toward life after closure. Now reality is going to be here.”
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