It was to be the largest implosion in the state of Maine. The building that had served as the heating plant for Loring Air Force Base from 1953 until the base closed in 1994 was expected to collapse in on itself in six seconds.
Demolition crews had spent weeks removing hazardous materials, weakening steel support columns so the walls would fall in the right direction, and placing more than the normal number of timed charges because of the building’s solid steel construction.
Several hundred people gathered under a tent 1,200 feet from the site on Aug. 13, digital and video cameras ready to record history.
The countdown began. Charges detonated 290 pounds of dynamite. Three chimneys fell. Some of the walls gave way. But when the dust cleared, most of the 58-year-old building remained standing. The demolition plan was insufficient to bring down the structure designed to withstand the kinds of hostilities envisioned during the Cold War.
“We think the building was just built very soundly,” the operations manager for the demolition company told the crowd waiting for more action that was not to happen.
Why does this event seem symbolic? How often is the resilience of Aroostook County underestimated?
I remember when The County began to imagine itself without Loring Air Force Base in the 1980s. The Department of Defense had included the Strategic Air Command base in Limestone on a list of bases scheduled for massive reductions. As district representative for U.S. Sen. Bill Cohen, I was included in meetings of leaders representing all of the county’s resources — agriculture, forestry, education, health care, business, finance, economic development — focused on how those resources could be energized to help sustain Aroostook without the base. Anticipating a loss generated new possibilities.
With the emergence of the Save Loring Committee, led by Paul Haines of Limestone, the focus shifted to retaining the base at full strength, an effort that was successful in prolonging the life of Loring for another decade. But those early meetings were a wake-up call to the reality of impermanence. Perhaps they set the stage for the recovery that had to occur after Loring closed in 1994.
Today Loring Air Force Base is the Loring Commerce Centre, home to a number of enterprises that generate a total annual payroll of $50 million, according to Carl Flora, president and CEO of the Loring Development Authority, which oversees development at the former base.
“There has been some erosion [due to the recent economic downturn],” he said, “but overall we are still doing very well.”
Of the 1,200 to 1,300 people employed at the commerce center, 600 work at the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, which processes vendor payments, payroll and accounting for military units in places across the globe.
“I’m told they serve 18 time zones,” Flora said, noting “the average per capita [annual] salary for DFAS employees is in the high 30s.” DFAS occupies the 142,000-square-foot hospital built in 1988, three years before the base finally was listed for closure.
When the base first closed, Art and Gary Cleaves, Maine National Guardsmen from Caribou, had a brainstorm: Why not use buildings and equipment left behind by the Air Force to retrofit and rebuild military ground equipment? They convinced the National Guard Bureau to let them test the idea using two buildings and 20 employees. Within two years, the concept was proven successful.
Today, the Maine Military Authority employs between 150 and 200 people, saving taxpayers more than a half billion dollars. MMA typically occupies about 440,000 square feet in nine buildings including two former warehouses, each 120,000 square feet.
“The Maine Military Authority is a cornerstone of our development effort,”
Flora said. “It has grown because of the inherent value of refurbishing vehicles rather than buying new ones.”
After the United States went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the need for vehicle repair exceeded the capacity of the Army to keep up. The MMA filled that need, going from 20 employees to at one point to as many as 500.
Trucks and rail cars loaded with military Humvees, Howitzer tanks, 5-ton trucks, communications equipment, mobile kitchen units and even field laundries move on Maine highways and railroads delivering their cargo to an 8-acre compound at the Loring Commerce Centre to be rebuilt by local mechanics and auto body experts. It was the perfect enterprise for Aroostook County.
“With our agricultural heritage, everybody knows how to fix something,” Flora said. “People in Aroostook County have that quality as second nature.”
As the wars wind down, the MMA is expanding into other fields, including the rebuilding of school buses and municipal equipment, such as construction vehicles and firetrucks.
Limestone after Loring also hosts new educational ventures. Limestone Community High School gave space to the Maine School of Science and Mathematics, which attracts high-achieving secondary school students from across the state. And the 10-building Job Corps campus on the former base trains students between the ages of 16 and 24 in a range of fields from general business and culinary arts to diesel mechanics. The faculty and staff of 135 includes many central Aroostook teachers who were displaced after the base closed. The 350-400 students live in the former enlisted airmen’s quarters and use the dining commons, gymnasium, Whispering Pines recreational center, auto body shop and several other buildings.
Most recently, the kitchen of the former NCO club has served as an incubator for a new business that will be located in Van Buren. Northern Girl LLC has received the final funding to construct a $1 million vegetable processing plant to produce and process Maine-grown fruits and vegetables. Launched at an opening on the former base Dec. 10, the business fulfills a dream of Jim and Kate Cook, who founded Skylandia Organic Farm in Grand Isle in the 1990s. Their “northern girl,” Marada Cook, and her sister Leah Cook now operate Crown of Maine Organic Cooperative, which will distribute the foods produced at the new facility.
On the horizon for the Loring Commerce Center are potential new energy-related businesses (wood pellets, biomass and wind) and a “cloud computing center” that would increase electronic data capacity for area businesses.
“Maine is still viewed as an expensive place to do business,” Flora said describing the process of attracting companies to northern Maine, but he says existing buildings and an available trained work force are real assets.
“We have a work force with skills and motivation” — a work force that gives Aroostook County internal strength, like the steel columns and beams of the Loring heat plant.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.