BRUNSWICK, Maine — When the Brunswick Naval Air Station shut down, thousands of consumers who supported businesses in the area disappeared.
At the same time, the country was in the throes of one of the worst economic recessions in history, crippling retailers and other businesses.
The result of the twin crises are evident in the big-box stores and strip malls clustered near the former base in Cook’s Corner.
Tens of thousands of feet of retail space stand vacant from when businesses fled the area years ago, leaving the two main shopping centers with a hollow, worn appearance.
As new businesses bring jobs, and students start to refill the empty buildings at the former base — which became Brunswick Landing — and large-scale construction projects take shape, there is increasing optimism that a growing customer base could lure retailers back and possibly spark a bigger development boom.
“It’s an encouragement to see the base come back to life,” said Ellyne Fleshner, a spokeswoman for WS Development, the Massachusetts-based company that owns Merrymeeting Plaza.
The plaza has 39,400 square feet of vacant retail space, and an existing Coldwater Creek store is in the process of closing.
“When the Navy left, there was certainly less people, and other small businesses closed because they depended on the base for business,” Fleshner said. “Any type of business activity that brings that back is a good thing.”
A Shaw’s supermarket is the plaza’s only remaining anchor tenant, after the closure of an Old Navy clothing store and Borders bookstore. The supermarket is buttressed by niche retailers such as Day’s Jewelers, Game Stop and Pet Quarters.
Fleshner said her company is searching for popular chain retailers to move into the empty space. Popular stores bring in customers, who are then more likely to shop at the plaza’s other retailers, she said.
So far, however, the company hasn’t had much luck enticing national, big-name tenants.
Its newest occupants are two young, local entrepreneurs who opened Zack’s Gifts in one of the open spaces in the past month.
Although happy to have a place, business partners Tim Brilliant and Zach Morin said working with a management company used to dealing with national chains can be frustrating: some of the policies, such as a rule against hanging a banner at the entrance, aren’t helpful for a small business getting on its feet.
Still, the pair said they are looking forward to seeing if development in the area helps their young business prosper.
Less than a quarter-mile away, eight vacant storefronts line the main strip mall in Cook’s Corner.
There is more than 35,000 square feet of empty space in the mall, with one large 20,600-square-foot store sitting in the center.
The Cook’s Corner strip is still anchored by a Sears, T.J. Maxx and Staples. A Regal Cinemas movie theater sits across the street. The main plaza is circled by smaller retail stores and restaurants.
The development is owned by the Ohio-based DDR Corp., which owns and leases retail space across the U.S. Multiple calls to DDR were not returned.
Jim Howard, the president of Topsham-based Priority Real Estate, said the abundance of open retail space is one of the main reasons his company isn’t planning on building another strip mall in the area.
Last week, the Brunswick Planning Board approved a Common Development Plan for a “gateway” development proposed by Howard and the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority at the entrance to Brunswick Landing. It provides a uniform development plan for an estimated $20 million in new construction, mainly mixed-use office and professional space, centered on Bath Road and Admiral Fitch Drive.
“The focus for us for our development at Brunswick Landing is professional office space,” he said. “The customers we’re talking to to lease to wouldn’t go into retail spaces.”
Although the proposal includes designs for a gas station, restaurant and bank building to be some of the first buildings on Bath Road, Howard said his company is intentionally trying not to compete with empty stores nearby.
“When somebody calls us about retail space, we make it a point to send them to Merrymeeting and Cook’s Corner plazas,” he said.
The type of professional buildings Howard proposes could have a positive effect on neighboring retail space, helping the area avoid the fate of other communities with large tracts of empty big-box stores, said Sarah Schindler, a professor at the University of Maine School of Law in Portland and an expert on the issue.
“Usually, developers are not going to build office space if they don’t need it,” Schindler said.
“If anything, that will bring more people into the area,” she added, because more customers create an incentive for retailers to move back in, or for developers to take a second look at the space’s possibilities.
Other communities haven’t been as lucky, she noted. In many cases, when big-box “anchor” stores close, it has a domino effect on reliant smaller retailers, pulling them down, too.
In some places, retail space has been reoccupied by everything from bowling alleys to churches, but it is more common for a storefront to remain vacant for a long time after it is abandoned.
“The problem is, when you lose an anchor store, there aren’t that many uses that could go into those really big spaces,” Schindler said.
The base redevelopment, especially relocation of the Southern Maine Community College campus, will definitely have a positive impact on the area, state Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, said.
But the area needs more than just increased foot traffic to thrive, Gerzofsky said: it also needs a facelift to improve worn buildings and infrastructure improvements to aid traffic.
Specifically, Gerzofsky points to a redevelopment of the former Atrium hotel into a mixed-use complex, including a Goodwill store by Auburn developer George Schott, and a proposal to build a connecting road from Route 24 to Tibbetts Drive to open up more retail space.
Gerzofsky predicts a development boom for the area; in fact, he’s worried that it might grow too quickly.
Town Councilor Gerry Favreau, who represents part of Cook’s Corner, agreed that planned developments could be “the shot in the arm” that helps revive the area’s waning fortunes.
Competition from other shopping centers, such as the malls in Topsham that boast a Target, Home Depot and Best Buy, shouldn’t factor too heavily into the success of Cook’s Corner, Fleshner said.
“Competition is a good thing,” Fleshner said. “Seeing another center do well is a good thing. It shows that people are still shopping.”