June 19, 2018
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Redevelopment of Brunswick Navy base ushers in jobs and acclaim

By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff

BRUNSWICK, Maine — The group overseeing the civilian resettlement of the former Brunswick Naval Air Station is ahead of its peers nationwide in terms of attracting businesses and creating jobs, a top Defense Department official said.

The work in Brunswick is setting the pace for base redevelopment efforts across America, according to the Association of Defense Communities’ annual State of Base Redevelopment report, released this month.

Bryant Monroe, project leader for the Defense Department’s Office of Economic Adjustment, said the 2005 round of military base closures, including the Brunswick Naval Air Station, has been “particularly tough for a lot of reasons.”

The incremental closures took place between 2005 to 2011, during what would become the country’s biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression.

The 2005 U.S. Base Realignment and Closure round was also the first in which the federal government planned to sell the base properties. In the four previous closure rounds dating back to 1988, the properties were turned over to local civilian reuse agencies at little or no cost, saving millions of dollars from the overall costs to redevelop the lots.

Despite those financial hurdles, the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, the local agency overseeing the former air station’s conversion, has attracted 27 employers and 255 new jobs since the base was officially decommissioned in 2011.

The authority expects to have generated as many as 600 jobs at the site by next year as companies like airplane manufacturer Kestrel Aircraft Co. and Swedish medical supply maker Molnlycke Health Care continue to hire staff.

Steve Levesque, MRRA executive director, said his group is engaged in talks with between 10 and 15 companies for potential moves to the former air station as well.

“We’re focusing on out-of-state businesses and international businesses,” he said Wednesday. “Some [are seeking] small spaces and some large spaces.”

The private redevelopment of former air station properties has generated about $800,000 in property tax revenue for Brunswick and Topsham, where the base existed, according to an MRRA announcement.

By comparison, the agency overseeing redevelopment of the former Army Fort Monmouth in New Jersey made its first sale to a private employer this year. Other properties tapped in 2005 for closures, including the former 1,400-acre Fort Gillem in Georgia and 5,200-acre Concord Naval Weapons Station in California, haven’t attracted a single new civilian job since shutting down, according to the report.

Those bases were among 25 installations either closed or realigned during the 2005 BRAC grouping. In many cases, the former military properties haven’t even been turned over to civilian authorities for redevelopment efforts to begin.

“For Brunswick to have gone from ground zero — starting with a clean slate of empty buildings — [to] now having [27] tenants at the base, there is no one close to them in that 2005 BRAC portfolio,” Monroe said in a statement.

In Brunswick, Levesque’s team worked with outgoing base commander Capt. William Fitzgerald to negotiate civilian access to the previously off-limits base airport four months before the Navy officially left the property. That allowed MRRA to entice Kestrel Aircraft Co., a startup that needed a home for its new headquarters early in 2011.

Kestrel has since moved much of its operation to Wisconsin, but retains a presence at the former Brunswick air station.

“The Navy was very receptive to our requests.” Levesque said. “We had base commanders who were willing to do those things with us … They really played a huge role. At some of the other bases, [military officials] just wouldn’t let the [local redevelopment agencies] do those things.”

The Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority also worked with Maine’s congressional delegation and Navy officials to clear the potentially costly hurdle of acquiring the former base property. Levesque said Democratic U.S. Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree, along with Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and then-Sen. Olympia Snowe, shepherded a law through Congress relaxing the federal rules requiring the Pentagon to seek fair market value for all closing base properties up-front.

As a result, MRRA and the Navy agreed to a deal in which the local civilian group would take over control of the former base properties quickly, then pay off the debt using a portion of the revenue created from the sales or leases of those properties. Including an up-front payment of $3 million, Levesque said his group expects it to take 23 years of annual payments to clear its debt to the Navy.

“We just developed a good working development with the Navy,” Levesque said. “It was to their benefit to get the property transferred as quickly as they could to get that off their portfolio. It wasn’t anything magic. It was just about building relationships.”

MRRA also recently announced a partnership with Mechanics Savings Bank to add another $500,000 line of credit to the redevelopment authority’s pre-existing $500,000 line, thereby giving MRRA $1 million to fuel a loan program for businesses seeking to start up on former base properties.

“We’re trying to grow some businesses here,” said Leveque.

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