The conversion of the Brunswick Naval Air Station for civilian reuse offers a model for other communities and regions in Maine facing economic challenges.
Since the Navy officially ceded operation of the base to civilian authorities in 2011, the airstrip has reopened as Brunswick Executive Airport, and 16 businesses have moved into former military properties on the 1,700 acres now called Brunswick Landing.
The progress isn’t as consistent as the precision landing and takeoff maneuvers practiced by U.S. Navy P-3 Orion crews that called Brunswick home until 2009. Yet, despite the turbulence caused earlier this year by Kestrel Aircraft’s decision to take a sweeter deal from Wisconsin to build its new composite passenger planes in that state, redevelopment moves forward on multiple fronts.
The most encouraging aspect of the base reuse strategy, which aims to replace almost 5,000 jobs lost with the departure of sailors and their families, derives from the intentionally integrated nature of the process. Establishing Brunswick Landing as a center of innovation where employers can tap closely linked resources such as the community college system and Maine Technology Institute makes it easier to recruit new businesses.
“ We want to be a living laboratory of new technologies,” Steve Levesque, executive director of the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, which oversees civilian reuse of the former Navy base, told the Bangor Daily News in June.
At Brunswick Landing, new training programs support job creation in tangible ways. For example, Southern Maine Community College has added programs at its new campus on the former base to align with workforce needs of neighboring businesses. The collaboration between the college and Molnlycke, a Swedish medical supplies manufacturer about to occupy a new $14.2 million building and employ roughly 130 people on the former base property, demonstrates how the education system can adapt to meet employers’ needs.
SMCC’s composites technology center and the launch of a pre-engineering program on its Brunswick campus this fall represent other examples of how the state’s community college system can team with employers to funnel Maine students directly into the local workforce. That’s one way to plug the “brain drain” of talented young Mainers who leave the state because they can’t find good jobs here.
Jobs and training aren’t the only areas where Brunswick Landing serves as a testing ground to develop strategies that could prove beneficial elsewhere in Maine. Reducing energy costs for employers is another.
The Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority on Aug. 1 announced a contract with Constellation NewEnergy that provides tenants with power from renewable energy sources at below-market rates. Green energy appeals to modern entrepreneurs in fields such as information technology, and finding ways to reduce the cost of that energy encourages businesses already at Brunswick Landing to consider expansion, as Mike Tompkins of Oxford Networks Data Center told the BDN earlier this month.
Redevelopment officials also worked through a complex lease left behind by the Department of Defense and contractor Balfour Beatty to make it possible for private developers to add former military housing to the market in a manageable way.
In addition to the federal funding earmarked to support redevelopment of military facilities closed in the name of saving taxpayers money, the effort in Brunswick has secured, to date, $60 million in planned private investment, according to Levesque.
As with the Loring Commerce Centre, which grew out of Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, employment gains in Brunswick are hard won and incremental. But they are noteworthy because redevelopment of former military bases means more to Maine than boutique energy speculation and government-subsidized economic development experimentation.
As a model for collaborative, asset-based redevelopment, what happens at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station stands to benefit all Mainers.