A Sept. 4 vote by the Brunswick Town Council to suspend negotiations for tax increment financing deals with the group overseeing civilian reuse of the former Brunswick Naval Air Station unnecessarily injects politics into the redevelopment process and sends an alarming message to entrepreneurs who might be considering the site.
The stakes are too high to let emotions and struggles for control stymie redevelopment of the 3,200-acre property, which closed as a military base in 2011.
A master reuse plan, released in 2007 after two years of research reflecting extensive public input, projects that full build-out of what is now called Brunswick Landing in 20 years would result in 13,800 jobs, $40,849,000 in annual income taxes and more than $19 million in annual property taxes.
Even if those projections are optimistic, the potential benefits of converting the former base for commercial use represent an economic development opportunity rarely seen in Maine. The millions of dollars in federal aid available for conversion of closed military facilities adds value to what should be a concerted, collaborative effort to put in place the best framework to make redevelopment goals reach fruition.
Doing so requires long-term thinking and a willingness to set aside parochial attitudes reflected in the Sept. 4 Brunswick Town Council vote.
“Because of a reduction in our revenues, particularly on the school side, the council felt they needed to do everything they could to take care of Brunswick’s situation,” Brunswick Town Manager Gary Brown said in explaining the vote. “There’s also a degree of uncertainty of what the state will let us do. The council is going to take a wait-and-see attitude.”
In this case, “wait-and-see” is short-sighted, and taking care of “Brunswick’s situation” now could worsen the town’s condition in the future. Experts on the redevelopment of closed military facilities, including Brian Hamel, who helped guide civilian conversions of Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire and Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, consistently argue that “ town and development leaders must speak in one voice and have the same priorities.” Presenting a unified message demonstrates political stability, a selling point in the global competition for businesses.
“ From Tank Trails to Technology Parks: The Impact of Base Redevelopment for New England” by Bernd F. Schliemann, a doctoral dissertation at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, puts the recent Brunswick Town Council vote in context. It documents how municipalities’ attempts to assert local control have thwarted redevelopment of the former South Weymouth Naval Air Station in Massachusetts since 1998. Schliemann makes a compelling argument that a “quasi-state redevelopment agency (similar to the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority in Brunswick) navigated the base reuse process” to far greater success at Pease and Loring than local controllers did in South Weymouth.
“To help establish the parameters for success, leaders at all levels must pursue funding from state and federal sources as well as incentives that entice business development on the former base,” Schliemann writes.
Tax-increment financing is one of those incentives. It constitutes an important funding source for infrastructure upgrades needed to make Brunswick Landing hospitable to new businesses that will add value to a property that’s been off the tax rolls for more than half a century. Without those upgrades, the site becomes less marketable — and thereby less valuable to Brunswick.
Town councilors do a disservice to Brunswick residents by using their control over the TIF negotiations to express dissatisfaction with decisions not to appoint municipal staff to the MRRA board and speculation about changes to state TIF policy.
With five Brunswick residents on the 11-member regional redevelopment authority’s board, the council can’t credibly claim that the town is underrepresented. A council recommendation to nominate the town’s liaison to MRRA, whose position is funded primarily with federal dollars funneled through the authority, would pose a potential conflict of interest.
To address town officials’ frustrations constructively, municipal, state and Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority representatives should sit down together to repair their damaged working relationship and commit to decisions based on open communication.