‘You can make it here’: Business incubator breaks ground at former Navy hangar in Brunswick

Posted Sept. 04, 2014, at 4:39 p.m.

BRUNSWICK, Maine — Paul Desjardins built a prototype for folding emergency shelters that could be deployed to respond to natural disasters.

His business is based out of a Harpswell home, but the ceremonial start of construction Thursday on a business incubator at Brunswick Landing — the former Brunswick Naval Air Station — has him seeing bigger visions.

“We feel like it’s an ideal spot to build them here and ship them through Bath or fly them out of [the former Navy air base] directly for any disaster relief,” Desjardins said.

In their final version, the Green Pod units, which contract to one-third their deployed size, not only would provide shelter but also power. It’s something Desjardins thinks could be provided by Beltane, a company that is manufacturing its mobile solar power source at the former Navy base. Steve Musica, one of Beltane’s co-founders, said in an email his company is looking to lease space in TechPlace, too.

While occupancy in that space is still months away, it’s the type of business interaction state and federal economic development officials expect from TechPlace, which will be housed in a 90,000-square-foot hangar that once sheltered P3 Orion surveillance planes at the decommissioned naval air station.

“TechPlace provides a rare opportunity to join a community of creative innovators and bold entrepreneurs in a shared high-tech manufacturing workplace,” said Steve Levesque, executive director of the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, which has managed the base’s conversion for civilian use. “In short, you can make it here.”

The empty Navy Building 250 has plenty of space and rare features, like industrial overhead cranes. Susan Ruhlin, who manages the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development’s Top Gun training program, said that existing resource will help fledgling businesses test their products as they seek to bring them to market.

“I think it’s really what’s needed,” Ruhlin said, noting TechPlace also could host training and networking for entrepreneurs in collaboration with Top Gun’s recent expansion to the midcoast. “It’s already here. Let’s not break what works. Obviously, it needs a lot of work, but it’s a great project.”

Thursday marked the start of $1.5 million in renovations to build out about 20,000 square feet of office space at the building Levesque said will create its entrance. That work is supported by a federal grant given to 10 projects in the country through the “Make it in America Challenge,” launched by President Barack Obama’s administration.

Four to five businesses are interested in moving to TechPlace when it opens in December, and Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority is pursuing other funding sources for later phases to complete the manufacturing space at the building, according to Levesque. Completion of that aspect of the project, he said, is in line with the former base’s master plan to mix education, existing business, incubator space and other land uses with the former Navy airport that has been converted to civilian use.

“This project symbolizes the continuation of our original vision and plan,” Levesque said. “We want to be a place where entrepreneurs can come and grow and be a living laboratory for new technologies and new ideas that will spill off into the greater region and the state.”

Levesque credited political officials at the local, state and federal level with helping to bring the project to fruition, an effort that included investment from the Brunswick Development Corp. and an application from the town for a federal Community Development Block Grant.

Levesque said Maine’s congressional delegation’s collaboration stands out among its peers nationally in helping to guide development at the 3,200-acre former base, which the Navy decommissioned in 2011.

“I can get a letter to a federal agency signed by all members [of the Maine delegation] in 24 hours, and that’s not common,” Levesque said, referencing conversations with leaders of the 25 other former bases closed during the 2005 round of base closures.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud attended the ceremony Thursday alongside Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, and Brunswick Town Council Chairman Benet Pols.

Pols said after tensions ran high last year between the town and the redevelopment authority, Maine Economic and Community Development Commissioner George Gervais helped reopen lines of communication that helped the town and redevelopment officials make progress on designating a tax increment financing district for the former Navy base and its airport.

Gerzofsky, a member of the original Local Redevelopment Authority that developed the master plan for the property, said building an incubator space at the base was a top priority.

That space is targeting businesses in aerospace and aviation, composites and advanced materials, biotechnology, renewable energy and information technology.

“These are things we need to do for our state to make things better for our people,” Gerzofsky said.

Since converting for civilian use in 2011, the base has attracted 52 businesses employing 450 people with a projection for more than 750 jobs by the end of the year.