BRUNSWICK, Maine — Visitors in Brunswick this holiday season will find the town bustling like it hasn’t in years, hearkening back more than a decade ago to when Brunswick Naval Air Station was at its peak.
Heading into town along Pleasant Street, the Portland Diocese is building a 15,000-square-foot multipurpose building at St. John the Baptist Church and Catholic School.
A few blocks away across the street, a two-story rooftop aquaponic greenhouse rises over Tao Yuan, the first of three restaurants opened by chef Cara Stadler, a five-time semifinalist for the James Beard Rising Star Chef Award. Stadler plans to raise fish and plants for Tao Yuan and her two Portland restaurants, Bao Bao Dumpling House and Lio Restaurant, in the greenhouse.
A short walk from there is Maine Street — where all the storefronts are full. At the north end of Maine Street, overlooking the Androscoggin River, the 125,000-square-foot Fort Andross Mill Complex is full of artists, restaurants, a gym and several businesses — fully leased for the first time in decades, according to town officials.
At the south end, Bowdoin College is building four three-story residence halls along Park Row and renovating other buildings into student housing — a decision not due to increased enrollment but to “a need to enhance housing options for juniors and seniors,” a spokesman said Thursday.
Meanwhile, the 30,000-square-foot Roux Center for the Environment, on the site of the former Kappa Sigma fraternity, was open for the start of the fall semester, and work continues on a major project at Whittier Field that included rerouting Pine Street to make room for a new locker room facility.
Meanwhile, work continues on a new 70,000-square-foot elementary school, which broke ground last month at the site of the former Jordan Acres School on Jordan Avenue, a manageable walk from Maine Street.
Despite the high price tags and visibility of these projects, development farther east — at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station — is the driving force behind much of the town’s economic growth.
When federal officials voted in 2005 to close Brunswick Naval Air Station — at that time the state’s second-largest employer — town and redevelopment officials knew that marketing the property had to begin well in advance of the May 2011 closing ceremony.
Redevelop and reinvent
Despite the impressive facility handed over to the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, the entity charged with redeveloping the base — resurfaced runways, refurbished housing, airplane hangars and townhouses — the impact of losing 4,500 sailors and their families, as well as about 700 civilian employees, hit hard across multiple aspects of the community.
The thriving air base quickly shrank to a quiet ghost town of vacant buildings and runways, and public schools braced for lean times. Businesses of all sizes, from Borders to Friendly’s and Old Navy to Talbot’s, closed seemingly overnight.
Then, in 2008 the stock market crashed, and residential developments throughout town were put on hold.
By September 2011, four months after the last jets flew out of Brunswick, Steve Levesque, executive director of MRRA, had 10 companies doing business at Brunswick Landing — the new name for the former base — and MRRA had been named that year’s recipient of the Maine Development Foundation’s Champion of Economic Development.
The pace at which the once empty Navy base has been repopulated surprised everyone, said Brunswick Town Manager John Eldridge, who served as the town’s finance director at the time of the closure.
“I think the expectation was that it would come back at some point, but the turnaround has been quicker than I think people had imagined,” Eldridge said Tuesday. “Certainly, we’re grateful for that.”