Low rolling thunder precedes the aircraft's appearance behind the Victorian mansions that face Brunswick's town green. With its bulky profile and wing propellers, the navy's P-3 Orion resembles an early-1960s passenger plane lumbering in from the past. Under the trees, shoppers inspect the herbs, flowers, and fruit pies displayed atop tailgates at the farmer's market. Across the Mall, as the green is known, office workers line up at Danny's hot-dog stand. The rumble amplifies. The plane banks gently and points its nose northeast.Tomatoes are bagged. Hot dogs are slathered with mustard. No one offers so much as a glance skyward.
A presence for more than sixty years, Brunswick Naval Air Station is woven so tightly into this town of 21,000 that it is like wallpaper, a routine of sounds and sights that barely register on the consciousness. Here are the twin chain-link fences, one inside the other, stretching more than a mile along busy Bath Road. Here is the massive hangar hulking in the distance. Here is the main gate and guard station, where a no-nonsense master-at-arms steps out to quiz occupants of each and every vehicle entering the compound.
A year ago, when the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) convened in Virginia to vote on the futures of dozens of military bases, "you couldn't conceive of this community without the air station," says Carolyn Farkas-Noe, vice president of the Southern Midcoast Chamber of Commerce. "We have such wonderful ties with the base and its residents. There is no delineation except a geographic one. They are friends, neighbors, and volunteers who are integrated into the community." An estimated 15,000 BNAS service personnel, dependents, and retirees call the region home.
Farkas-Noe knew Brunswick would lose the base "someday," but she, like most everyone else here, didn't believe someday had arrived. BNAS is, after all, the only active duty Department of Defense airfield in the Northeast. In the past four years, it has been upgraded to the tune of $124 million, and it has something its sister base in Jacksonville, Florida does not — a new $33.9 million hangar designed to accommodate the aircraft that will eventually replace the P-3's.
But the BRAC Commission did vote to close the base, and now residents and business owners are being asked to imagine the inconceivable: Brunswick without the navy. In five years, 2,667 active-duty naval personnel, 1,341 part-time reservists, 657 full-time civilian jobs, and the $330 million that the base pumps into the local economy yearly will be gone.
For some, the reality has yet to sink in, in part because that familiar background noise won't begin to fade for another two years, when the first of four P-3 squadrons relocates to Jacksonville. It is difficult for business owners to grasp the need to start planning. "I hear people say 2011 is a long way off," Farkas-Noe says. "Navy personnel are still coming up. They just finished a $9.8 million state-of-the-art air-traffic-control tower. The Blue Angels will be here for an air show next summer. It's still a very active base."
Though it may appear that the community is in a state of suspension, it is anything but. The day after the BRAC announcement, state, regional, and local agencies began brainstorming strategies to offset the impacts. Right now, all eyes are on Brunswick as residents, led by the Local Redevelopment Authority (LRA), share their ideas for redevelopment of air station properties, a process that must culminate in a master zoning plan by September 2007. It is, at times, like working a jigsaw puzzle in the dark. This past summer, meaningful planning was held up by a delay in the navy's decision on five federal agencies' bids for acreage. Likewise, the LRA is waiting for a study on the feasibility of maintaining aviation uses at the base, a critical piece. Even with those pieces in place, the task remains enormous and enormously important because the next twelve months will lay the framework for a new Brunswick and have consequences that ripple across the state.
Sitting just outside Portland's suburban orbit, Brunswick is, with nearby Topsham and Bath, the retail, manufacturing, health care, and cultural center for twenty-odd communities stretching from Freeport to Wiscasset, west to Lisbon and north to Richmond. Sailors, shipbuilders, educators, artists, fishermen, and retailers, the 85,000 people who live here are a diverse and well-educated lot.
Brunswick in particular reflects the population's multeity. It is home to Bowdoin College, two regional hospitals, several manufacturers, and the offices of Bath Iron Works, Maine's largest employer. The unusually wide Maine Street accommodates establishments local and varied: Agren Appliance and Bayview Gallery, Frosty's Donut and Morning Glory Natural Foods, Danny's on the Mall and Bombay Mahal. Side streets are largely residential, with big, old homes dominating the village and Bowdoin College areas. Farther afield are modest sixties- and seventies-vintage subdivisions, the liveliest of which is a seventy-acre navy-owned complex off McKeen Street, about a mile southwest of downtown. Recently renovated with the addition of front porches and vinyl siding, the 177 ranches and duplexes look spanking new. American and decorative flags (every house has a flagpole bracket) break the monotony of limited architectural styles and color schemes. On weekdays, when other neighborhoods seem deserted, these streets are filled with children playing ball and bicycling. Mothers sit on lawns, watching and chatting.
Few military families came when the navy seized its first largely undeveloped 1,400 acres in 1943. A spartan, strictly wartime base was built around an existing half-mile runway to train Royal Canadian Air Force pilots, who arrived together one afternoon, looping and rolling their whining Corsairs. Deactivated three years later, the air station was recommissioned in 1951 when it was designated for development as permanent base. Its Cold War mission: support the navy fleet with submarine-hunting aircraft, first the Neptune patrol bomber, later the P-3 Orion. By 1959, several thousand navy personnel were stationed here.
In defiance of their itinerant lifestyle, navy families dive enthusiastically into the community, and they are warmly welcomed. "I was never treated differently because I was military," says Jim Oinkle, who first arrived for a two-year stint in 1971. The navy sent him back three more times — first on a ship being overhauled at Bath Iron Works ("My wife didn't come that time. She was as jealous as the dickens."); next on a four-year assignment with the U.S. Supervisor of Ship Building, which oversees the construction of navy destroyers at BIW; and finally for a three-year assignment as base controller. "Every chance I got to return here I did, because I like the area very much," says Oinkle, who is now in his second career as business manager for the Brunswick public schools. "I certainly hope I've made a contribution."
A reduction in the pool of talented employees like Jim Oinkle concerns Brunswick School Superintendent Jim Ashe far more than the loss of eight hundred thousand dollars in federal aid that the town receives to help educate six hundred children from military families (Brunswick's total school enrollment is 3,300). Navy retirees, who were settling here long before developer John Wasileski built his Highland Green retirement community in Topsham, will likely keep coming for a while, but the spouses of active-duty personnel won't. "When I first arrived here, I thought, boy, I'm going to hire these people and they're only going to be here for two or three years," Ashe says. "Then I saw what an unbelievable opportunity it was because of their experiences. Jim Oinkle is a good example. We have a thirty million-dollar budget, but he's dealt with a lot more money than that in his career. Our director of facilities was chief engineer of an aircraft carrier. Our classrooms are enriched because we've got teachers and kids who have been all over the world. And the volunteerism! We've had squadrons go into the classrooms and hang up artwork, read to the kids, even build special rooms for us. The federal impact aid is way down on the list of the base's many benefits."
About seven hundred navy spouses work in the region in a variety of skilled jobs, but most people are confident that the workforce will replenish itself with time. It's a population known for civic responsibility and can-do energy that they'll miss. "We sure love the navy people," says Pastor Dale Morell of the Maine Street Baptist Church, which was started by military families forty years ago. "They come with expertise and experiences. I am ex-navy myself — I was a four-year man — so there's a spirit and enthusiasm and style that I resonate with. They roll up their sleeves and get involved. They don't just sit and warm the pew."
"I hope," adds Morell's wife, Marie, "that whatever they get at the base after it closes benefits everyone, not just business or government. This is an unusual place. You've got Bowdoin College and such a variety of people. We've got some very good minds at work on this, and many different options are being discussed, but the benefits should permeate throughout the entire community."
The difference between Maine Street and Cooks Corner, Brunswick's other major retail area, is illustrated by their respective movie theaters. Maine Street's Eveningstar, where patrons arrive early for first dibs on the couch seats, shows documentaries and independent features preceded by a slideshow of thoroughly local advertisements. Cooks Corner has the ten-screen Regal Cinemas, a characterless link in America's largest cinema chain that shows Hollywood fare. Cooks Corner is, in other words, a heavily trafficked hodgepodge of strip malls and big boxes, unloved but well-used.
Generica is not the only reason Cooks Corner feels a world apart from Maine Street. It is nearly cut off from the rest of Brunswick by the navy base, which Brunswick Planning Director Theo Holtwijk likens to a 3,100-acre hole in a fifty-square-mile doughnut. "It is smack dab in the middle of town," says Holtwijk, and for that reason he has reservations about the BRAC process. The LRA's thirteen-member board of directors is weighted with Brunswick residents, but five regional representatives, including two state legislators, are also among the appointees. "I feel this is very much a Brunswick concern," Holtwijk says. "I understand it has larger implications — regional and statewide effects — but when you come right down to it, it's a doughnut hole and the doughnut is Brunswick. When all is said and done, this land will become part of Brunswick, the way all the surrounding land is part of Brunswick. The zoning and land use rules that are developed by the LRA will become part of our zoning ordinance. It's a process of reintegration."
With input from residents and other stakeholders, the LRA will identify uses for different sections of the base properties. The resulting master plan will be submitted to the Brunswick Town Council for its approval. The navy has no input on the re-use plan, but it does control how the property is transferred and to whom. Off limits for redevelopment are any parcels the navy agrees to transfer to other federal agencies including the army, air force, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Coast Guard, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, on behalf of the Penobscot Indian Nation. "We're confronted with a whole series of people lining up with their interests," Holtwijk says. "It's very easy to take the map and say we'll do this here and we'll do that there, and once you have the last piece of the puzzle in place, it's done. Perhaps. But I'm interested in the picture you have created. Does it make sense for Brunswick or have you just filled in the pieces and taken care of every acre in some manner?"
Holtwijk and Brunswick Economic Planning Director Mathew Eddy acknowledge the enormous challenge posed by three thousand jobs moving from a region that has been experiencing modest, albeit steady, business growth, but they believe Brunswick will be healthier in the long run. "The base has unlimited potential," Eddy says. "This is a great opportunity in terms of community linkages and economic development."
Concerned with strengthening the local economy before the base closes, Eddy has been a proponent of a second business park near the Freeport border. Residents of this rural part of town are opposed and say the base is a more appropriate site. "I don't think we can wait," Eddy says, noting only one lot remains in the existing business park. "We know the base won't be available for anything until 2012. We need to begin to create new jobs and new projects. We need to make sure all sectors of the economy are strong and growing so we're ready when the base does start phasing down."
Some of the predictions present frustrating ironies. Hundreds of civilians will lose their base jobs, yet the health-care industry will need to import hundreds of workers to replace departing navy spouses. The region needs affordable housing to increase the labor pool, but the sudden availability of seven hundred military housing units and two thousand off-base homes and apartments will bring a dramatic decrease in rents and loss of income for landlords. Yet Holtwijk believes there is a risk of getting bogged down in statistics and missing the bigger picture. "I hope the LRA will look beyond the seven hundred housing units. It's not just taking care of seven hundred units," he says. "It's how do we see ourselves twenty-five or fifty years from now? We need to find a right balance between delivering a plan on the stated date and delivering a plan that really works."
Seated in the Bookland café at Cooks Corner, barely more than a stone's throw from the air station's main entrance, Jeff Sneddon draws a circle on a sheet of paper. "This is our area," says the executive director of the Midcoast Council for Business Development and Planning. He draws another circle in the upper right corner. "Over here, you've got Bangor." He draws another circle, to the left this time. "Over here, you've got Augusta and Waterville." Another circle. "Lewiston and Auburn." Sneddon draws one last circle at the bottom of the page. "And down here, you've got Portland."
"There's the hub," Sneddon continues, rapidly drawing lines from each of the circles to the first, the Brunswick region. "Nobody else is positioned like that. This is the hub and these are the spokes. Everything except Bangor is within thirty miles." Circling his pen around the crude map, he says, "This is what we should be looking at. This is the development region. Are there ways to push-pull, to bring things this way, send things that way? They've got biotech in Orono; maybe we have polytech. Lewiston might be precision manufacturing and environmental engineering; we might be composites materials. That, to me, is the strategy. It's multiregional access, and we need to start looking at how we work with these areas. This isn't just a Brunswick issue."
The Midcoast Council, a regional economic development agency, administers the state's new Military Redevelopment Zone, which will use tax incentives to attract businesses to the area. As a member of the governor's BRAC Advisory Council, Sneddon also is working on strategies to help businesses weather the loss of military families' patronage and retrain the navy's civilian employees. "We're trying to ramp up and start some of those opportunities now so we can flatten out the downhill," Sneddon says.
Expansion of the composite materials and boat-building industries looks especially promising, thanks to a three-year, $15-million federal grant for research and design and for development of the workforce, market, and infrastructure. The grant, though not intended as direct relief for base closure impacts, is significant because the region hosts five small but growing composites companies, the best known of which is Harbor Technologies, a manufacturer of docks and pilings with forty employees. "It's not the silver bullet," Sneddon acknowledges. "I'm not saying, okay, we're losing three thousand jobs and this will replace them. But it's still a huge plus. Right now the composites work is in marine infrastructure, but everything that is made of wood potentially may be replicated by composites."
In the end, though, much hinges on how Brunswick residents direct the LRA over the next year, and Sneddon hopes they think big. There is room, he says, to accommodate many of the ideas being floated — an airport, a research and development park, a university — but the fact that they fit doesn't mean they fill a need. "Where are the businesses going to come from and are the buildings ready for them?" he says. "Where is the labor coming from? What kind of suppliers do they need? Who are the customers? That's why I go back to the hub. It's looking at joint ventures so we can expand our customer base. It's looking at technology to tie us together so we can pull in the commerce and the workforce to develop the products and build the supply chains. If they look at it as what Brunswick can do with 3,100 acres, they're selling themselves short. It's way bigger than Brunswick."