How one Maine town reinvented itself after its biggest employer left
By Beth Brogan, BDN Staff
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.”
By 2016, which Linda Smith, Brunswick’s economic development director, describes as “the turning point,” the former Navy hotel had been renovated into an assisted living complex. SaviLinx, a customer service and tech support center, had moved into the old Quarterdeck, where it now employs 200. Southern Maine Community College had opened a branch at Brunswick Landing, and now occupies five buildings, and Molnlycke Health Care now operates from a new 80,000 square-foot building.
That same year, Wayfair opened a call center at Brunswick Landing — it now employs 500 people, according to Levesque — UHaul purchased 186,000 square feet of vacant space at the former Arrowhead Plant, and there wasn’t a vacant storefront downtown.
But even 2016 pales in comparison to the development Brunswick, both on and off the former base, has seen in the past year.
“It’s the busiest it’s been since 2006,” said Jeff Emerson, deputy chief of fire prevention at the Brunswick Fire Department, who is also responsible for inspecting buildings for compliance with life safety and other codes.
According to an Oct. 12 report from Levesque to the MRRA board of trustees, the TechPlace incubator at Brunswick Landing houses 35 companies. Elsewhere on the former base, nearly 600,000 square feet are under lease to more than 65 businesses, and MRRA has sold more than 400 acres of land and 45 buildings, with nearly 120 private and public entities doing business at Brunswick Landing.
“The development effort has realized over $350M in private and public-sector investments made into the properties over the past four years,” Levesque wrote.
Brunswick Executive Airport has seen a 10 percent annual increase in airport operations since it opened in 2011 and is on track to log 20,000 aircraft visits by the end of 2018, Levesque said.
Levesque said Friday that with nearly 1,800 people working at Brunswick Landing and its housing at near capacity, it is likely the redevelopment has been the largest factor driving development outside the former base as well.
“I think certainly the amount of activity that’s occurred at Brunswick Landing has stimulated, obviously, development in the area, just as the closure [of the base] went the other way,” Levesque said Friday.
While Levesque has earned numerous awards for excellence in redeveloping the former Navy base, he credits a team, including several key investors, with the success of the redevelopment.
Auburn developer George Schott purchased more than 400 units of former military housing from the Navy in 2010 and then strategically released them for sale so the market wouldn’t sag, Smith said. Levesque said Schott invested “probably well over $20 million to $25 million” at Brunswick Landing.
And Jim Howard of The Priority Group has been “very aggressive” in “adopting” Brunswick Landing, Levesque said.
Howard, who graduated from Mt. Ararat High School in Topsham and still lives in the town across the Androscoggin, said Tuesday that he’s invested approximately $45 million at Brunswick Landing and another $10 million in the nearby Cook’s Corner area. And there’s more to come, he said, including a $15 million, 40,000-square-foot medical building; a new bank; and a 7,000-square-foot child care facility expected to open by the end of 2019.
Perhaps most notably, Howard is discussing with town officials and local residents building approximately $18 million in rental housing — 150 one- and two-bedroom apartments — on the new connector road between Brunswick Landing and Route 24, construction of which is set to begin Dec. 1.
“We’ll invest another $45 million over the next 30 months,” he said.
The road was approved by the town council to decrease congestion along the main roads of Cook’s Corner and allow traffic to move more easily in and out of Brunswick Landing, Eldridge said Tuesday. He said the $2.5 million cost of the 1,500 square-foot road, with signals at Gurnet Road and Admiral Fitch Drive, will be shared by state ($800,000), the redevelopment authority ($200,000), and approximately $1.5 million in town b0nds, which Eldridge said officials expect will be repaid by funds from the Brunswick Landing tax-increment financing plan.
Howard said his decision to pursue development at the base, and rental housing in particular, was spurred by what “we” needed in “our” town.
“Part of the motivation was the fact that we needed to develop Brunswick Landing in order to continue to make the community financially strong,” he said. “We lost 5,000 military personnel and 600 civilian jobs, and after that Cook’s Corner started to lose businesses. You don’t really know how to [begin]. … You see all that land and all of those empty buildings and think, ‘If we could get people to pay attention to them.’ … with 88 buildings, you start with the first one, and then the second one. Then there’s a tipping point and we needed services to take care of people on the property. Now we need housing to take care of them. And with the folks who own the housing now converting from rentals to condos, we’re going to get the rentals we need … For all the buildings we had out there, there are none left.”
“It sounds like a cliche, but we’re all in it together,” Howard said. “We all live in the community, and if we all work on the community … we feel pretty fortunate that we get to do all that we do for the community.”
His foray into rental units derives, in part, from the purchase of approximately 400 former Navy housing units by Brunswick Landing Ventures, which plans to convert existing housing into condominiums and build new units as well, according to Levesque.
Real estate agent Sue Spann told the Forecaster in June that the one-story condominiums would be listed for $290,000, while three-bedroom units would list for $325,000.
Much of the development at Brunswick Landing is aided by a tax-increment financing agreement that shifts half of new property tax benefits to MRRA and half to projects within the TIF development program, according to Eldridge.
Between the TIF and a recent revaluation, both Town Assessor Justin Hennessey and Edridge said any direct comparison of the town’s valuation prior to the closure and today would be at best “a wild guess.” Both said that since the Navy paid no property taxes at all, any increase is a win.
And commercial and residential projects in the area will be on the tax rolls. Among them, a 20,000-square-foot expansion of the Bath Iron Works Hardings Plant, a 5,000-square-foot urgent care facility and the recent purchase of the former Gilman Electrical Supply by John Snell of Jaiden Landscaping.
Even the owners of the long-stagnant Cook’s Corner Shopping Center are planning redevelopment, Eldridge said, although he declined to be more specific. And Smith said Merrymeeting Plaza, just across Bath Road from Brunswick Landing, just landed a new seafood restaurant, although she, too, said she could not divulge specifics.
Back closer to the town center, condominium projects that stalled around the time of the market crash have begun to resurface. The first, 24 units at Brunswick Station, are fully occupied, Eldridge said. An 11-unit project off McKeen Street, quiet since 2006, is moving forward again, and developer Bill Moore’s Spruce Meadow housing off Old Portland Road is “selling pretty well,” Town Planner Jared Woolston said.
Meanwhile, Levesque estimated payroll at Brunswick Landing at $100 million — not the $130 million it was when BNAS was “fully humming,” he said, but far beyond initial projections that at this point approximately 800-900 people would have jobs there.
“There were deep fears,” said Smith, who started as economic development director in 2014. Smith describes beginning her position at the time “after people had gotten past the classic grieving stages” of the base closure.
But pointing to the efforts by so many collaborators, she said, “These are all the little pieces [that make you think], ‘If that hadn’t happened, some of that gloom and doom might have played out.’”