BRUNSWICK, Maine — Its aircraft long gone, its sailors shipped out and most of its buildings vacant, Brunswick Naval Air Station lowered its flag a final time Tuesday as the Navy ended a presence dating back 68 years, paving the way for the private sector to write a new chapter on the 3,200-acre property.
Capt. William Fitzgerald, the final commanding officer, told 1,000 people attending the closing ceremony outside the base headquarters that there’s no way to escape the nostalgia people feel for the base, but he urged local residents to enjoy the memories while looking to the future.
“There are some really bright redevelopment opportunities on the horizon, so I think that bodes well for the community,” he told The Associated Press.
“That’s where people ought to have their focus.”
Fewer than a dozen Navy personnel remain at the base, and the Navy is in the process of handing off control to the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority. With the formal closing, remaining Navy personnel will trickle away, leaving a handful of civilians to complete the final transfers of property by September.
But the Navy didn’t let it end without a formal ceremony.
Local high school students filled the role of color guard and provided music for the ceremony featuring 11 former base commanders in addition to Fitzgerald; Rear Adm. Mark Boensel, commander of the Navy’s Mid-Atlantic region; and Jackalyne Pfannenstiel, an assistant Navy secretary.
Also on hand were scores of reservists and veterans including Arnold Wilkie, 87, of Cornish, N.H., who was there when the base opened in 1943.
“I’m sorry that it’s all over,” said Wilkie, a Navy hospital corpsman who was awarded the Purple Heart for action in the Pacific after leaving Brunswick.
The closing of Brunswick Naval Air Station leaves the military with no active-duty airfield in New England. Its P-3 Orion patrol aircraft, which kept watch over Soviet submarines in the North Atlantic during the Cold War, now operate from a base in Jacksonville, Fla.
For local residents, the closing represents a major blow beyond the loss of jobs. Navy personnel were part of the fabric of the community; their children attended its schools. Two of Fitzgerald’s four sons were born during his first assignment to Brunswick.
“You allowed us to become part of the woven fiber of this area. For that our nation is eternally grateful, because let me tell you, it is not like this everywhere,” he said.
Most residents have come to grips with the 2005 decision by the Base Closure and Realignment Commission to close the coastal base. Learning from past mistakes, the Navy and local redevelopment officials started the process of luring private development before the base closed.
In April, the base transferred ownership of its dual 8,000-foot runways, which now are used for general aviation. And as of Tuesday, 30 percent of the base property already had been transferred or was under a lease or license, Fitzgerald said.
“Never before have private companies been able to lease vacated Navy buildings prior to an official base closure,” Gov. Paul LePage said.
Redevelopment officials have secured commitments from aircraft manufacturer Kestrel Aviation Co., which intends to spend $100 million and employ as many as 300 people, as well as Molnlycke Health Care, Maine Tool and Machine, and information technology company Resilient Communications, among others.
Altogether, those companies bring the promise of up to 650 jobs, just shy of the 700 civilians employed when the base was in operation, said Steve Levesque of the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority.
Redevelopment officials are getting a top-notch facility. Before deciding to close the base, the Navy resurfaced the runways, overhauled the control tower and refurbished most of the base housing to the tune of more than $100 million. There are airplane hangars, baseball fields, 700 family homes, a bowling alley and new townhouses.
LePage said he hopes to keep the Navy base’s original motto — “Built for Business.”
“We will renew our Navy’s motto ‘Built for Business.’ A battle cry that was established here nearly 70 years ago will be transformed from a military motto to civilian slogan,” he said.