Brunswick: Ready for Take-Off
The closing of the Brunswick Naval Air Station has opened a wealth of possibilities for one of the “Best Small Towns in America.
- By: Edgar Allen Beem
Photograph by Heather Perry
When the May 2012 issue of Smithsonian named Brunswick one of “The 20 Best Small Towns in America,” the magazine cited cultural amenities such as the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick Outdoor Arts Festival, and Maine State Music Theatre in calling Brunswick “more than just a small fishing town.”
Yes, Brunswick is a great place, but it’s certainly not “a small fishing town.” In fact, with a population of close to 22,000, Brunswick is the largest town in Maine, larger than all but five of the twenty-two cities in the state. And that is one of the chief reasons why Brunswick is weathering the 2011 closure of the Brunswick Naval Air Station (BNAS) and the loss of the base’s 4,800 jobs and $140 million payroll so well. Brunswick is not a small town at all; it’s a small city with the diversity and resilience that implies.
Brunswick survived when the textile mills along the Androscoggin closed, and it will survive now that the navy base at Cook’s Corner has closed. That’s because Brunswick is also a college town, a market town, and a gateway to Maine’s midcoast. There may be a few empty storefronts around Cook’s Corner and some empty seats in the schools, but the downtown is bustling and the people around town are generally optimistic about the coming years.
“I think the base [redevelopment] is going to be an important part of Brunswick’s future,” says former Governor Angus King, a Brunswick resident taking a break from his U.S. Senate campaign to watch his daughter play lacrosse for Brunswick High School, “but it’s going to take longer than people think. What you really want is economic diversity. Ten, hundred-person plants are better than one, one thousand-person plant.”
The former Brunswick Naval Air Station is now Brunswick Landing and Brunswick Executive Airport. Steve Levesque, executive director of the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority (MRRA), has a huge office in Hangar 6, a monstrous beige box of a building that can accommodate six 737s.
“The vision,” says Levesque of the base redevelopment, “is that within twenty years people won’t recognize us as a military installation.”
MRRA’s redevelopment plan has three broad goals, the first of which is to replace the seven hundred lost civilian jobs as soon as possible. Though the base has only been closed a year, there are already 130 new jobs with the promise of 450 as new businesses on the base expand. Those businesses include the American Bureau of Shipping, Kestrel Aircraft, and Oxford Networks, a company that now uses the base’s server farm to provide secure data management to some of the largest corporations in the world.
The second broad goal is to recover the lost $140 million payroll.
“Pease took seventeen years. Loring may never get there,” says Levesque, citing the experiences of other decommissioned air bases. “We’re hoping for twelve to fifteen years.”
The third, long-term goal is to create 13,800 jobs and a $732 million payroll at build-out, a goal Levesque says may take thirty, forty, or fifty years to achieve. To get there, Brunswick Landing is focusing on innovation and education as the keys to success. Southern Maine Community College, for example, is in the process of building a campus focused on Maine’s growing composites industry.
As Brunswick Landing incubates, Peter Eichleay, president of FlightLevel Aviation, the fixed base operator of Brunswick Executive Airport, says civilian pilots are already finding the airstrip. Close to two hundred touched down for the Brunswick International Fly-In in June 2011, and the first summer of operation saw one hundred to two hundred take-offs and landings a day. “Talk about a beautiful place to fly!” enthuses Eichleay. “You can go all the way to Penobscot Bay and all the way to Cape Elizabeth in ten to fifteen minutes.”
A 2004 Bowdoin College grad whose company also manages ground operations at airports in Norwood, Massachusetts, and Lakeland, Florida, Eichleay foresees Brunswick developing into a trans-Atlantic tech stop for corporate jets.
“Brunswick is a great community surrounding the airport,” says Eichleay. “Pilots, crews, and passengers can get off and enjoy the recreation and culture of Brunswick and Bowdoin.”
College for Retirees
The simple view of Brunswick’s economy is as a three-legged stool – the base, Bowdoin, and the downtown business district forming the primary supports. Though Bowdoin College employs far fewer people than the navy base did, 875 compared to 4,800, its payroll (with benefits) amounts to better than half the base’s old payroll, $79 million compared to $140 million.
“Brunswick is an enormously resilient and attractive place to live, work, and grow a business,” says Bowdoin President Barry Mills.
Mills says Bowdoin plans to develop athletic fields and hiking and biking trails on the two hundred acres of base property it has acquired. He also foresees Bowdoin collaborating with Southern Maine Community College on innovative science programs.
In addition to educating 1,700 undergraduates at a time, Bowdoin attracts alums and others to retire in the area. In 2000 and again in 2005, Money magazine cited Bowdoin as a chief attraction in naming Brunswick one of “The Best Places to Retire” (though Money, too, thinks Brunswick is “a classic New England fishing village”).
“There is a very vibrant retirement community because of the relationship of Bowdoin to the town,” explains Barry Mills. “There are opportunities to take courses at Bowdoin for free, cultural events, sporting events, lectures, and concerts.”
Mills notes that the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, redesigned to face both inward toward the college quad and outward to Maine Street, is one of the college’s biggest draws, last summer bringing 43,000 people to campus to see its Edward Hopper exhibition.
Bowdoin officials are also pleased about the prospect of the base closing providing more affordable employee housing close to the college. “We have a lot of people commuting from Lisbon Falls and Lewiston,” says Bowdoin treasurer S. Catherine Longley, “we’re excited about so close-in affordable housing.”
The Real Estate Reality
Some sellers have feared that the closing of BNAS would flood the local real estate market with housing, but George Schott, the developer who purchased 702 units of base housing in seven different Brunswick and Topsham locations, says those fears are unfounded. “It’s going to be a slow, planned process,” says Schott, noting that he has had to tear down fifty-six units already and that a fair number of the units on the base are rented or leased.
Schott is concentrating his sales efforts on the 231 duplex and single-family units of housing off McKeen Street on the other side of the Bowdoin campus from the base. Because of the need to bring the former military housing up to state and municipal code, Schott says he actually only has nineteen homes ready to sell on McKeen Street. He plans to sell the rest over the next five years at prices ranging from $110,000 to $140,000.
“It’s great for young families,” says Schott. “They all look the same, nothing fancy, but the new owners can do whatever they want with them, and they’re in good shape.”
“We need affordable housing for young families to be welcomed into town, because that’s what we’re losing,” echoes Brunswick town council chairperson Joanne King.
A resident since 1980, and a town councilor since 2003, King is bullish on Brunswick despite the fact that her husband Dale’s business, Brunswick Taxi, is down 20 percent since the base closed.
“There is a lot of optimism despite the double whammy of the recession and the base closing,” says King.
One of her major concerns going forward is the reduction in federal and state education aid caused by the departure of eight hundred navy children from what was a 3,200-student school system. Between shrinking school enrollment and school consolidations, Brunswick has had to close three neighborhood schools in response to a $3 million funding gap.
“Another two years of downsizing and we may level off,” says Brunswick superintendent of schools Paul Perzanoski. “The silver lining is that the base housing hasn’t opened yet to be occupied.”
As Brunswick residents struggle to maintain high-quality schools, council chair Joanne King believes people in town will have to be more receptive than they sometimes have been to development proposals that will generate tax revenues.
“I hope there will be more support for bringing commercial businesses to this town so we can continue the lifestyle we all want,” says King, noting that residents turned down a Walgreens drugstore proposal not long ago. “You can’t say no to everything.”
The Downeaster Downtown
One of the largest developments in town is the $20 million Brunswick Station project, a new fifty-two-room inn and train station with offices and restaurants, all created in anticipation of the return of passenger rail service to the downtown. The Amtrak Downeaster is scheduled to start serving Freeport and Brunswick in November of this year.
Mike Lyne, who manages Brunswick Station for JHR Development, thinks the train can be a game-changer for Brunswick if local people are willing to promote Brunswick as a destination. “Because of the base, Bowdoin, BIW, and L.L.Bean, Brunswick has never really been in the position of promoting itself,” says Lyne, a 1986 Bowdoin graduate. “If we want to sell homes and fill schools we need to promote this as a good place to live. You can live here and work anywhere.”
In a grant application on behalf of Brunswick to the Maine Downtown Center, Lyne proposed “a new ‘brand’ founded on thoughtful development, the arts, food, and entertainment, higher education and recreation.”
One of Brunswick’s best-kept secrets is that it has a happening downtown of independent shops, stores, and restaurants that have found a high-quality, owner’s-in-the-store niche. There’s a thriving little creative economy in Brunswick that includes such businesses as Gulf of Maine Books, Bull Moose Records, Eveningstar Cinema, Nest’s furniture and housewares, Cool As a Moose gift store, Bart & Greg’s DVD Explosion, Wyler’s Gallery, Bayview Gallery, Icon Contemporary Art, Coleman Burke Gallery, and Frontier Café, Cinema, and Gallery.
“Our business has gone up in a major way in the last two years,” says poet-bookseller Gary Lawless, who has co-owned Gulf of Maine Books since 1979.
Due to the economy and the seismic shift in the way books are sold, Gulf of Maine now finds itself the only bookstore (other than the Bowdoin College bookstore) in a town that once had seven. Like many downtown businesses, Gulf of Maine never was dependent on the navy base and now that online book sales are killing off big box bookstore chains, independents like Gulf of Maine are blossoming in the void.
Another business that has not felt the impact of the base closure is El Camino, a popular side street Mexican restaurant specializing in local ingredients. El Camino took over a former Italian restaurant on Cushing Street in 2004. Owners Eloise Humphrey, her sister, Daphne Comaskey, and Daphne’s husband, Paul Comaskey, had been partners in a restaurant in San Francisco.
“I said if I didn’t like San Francisco, I’d move to Maine,” recalls Humphrey, who grew up in Connecticut and went to school in New Hampshire.
A few years after she moved to Maine, Humphrey persuaded her sister and brother-in-law to join her to start El Camino. “We weren’t certain who our clientele would be, but it was crazy,” she says. “People came out of the woodwork.”
What Humphrey and the Comaskey’s discovered is that Brunswick has become part of southern Maine’s widely touted local food culture. Their clientele is not just local; it’s national. And large. In 2010, based on the success of El Camino, the trio opened Flipside, a gourmet pizza parlor smack in the middle of downtown.
For foodies, Brunswick is a veritable feast. The food trucks on the town green always draw crowds — Danny’s Dogs, Lola’s Taqueria, and Wrappers. Nostalgia buffs love Fat Boy Drive-In across from the former base. For fine dining there’s Clementine. For Mediterranean fare there’s Trattoria Athena. Then there’s a United Nations of eateries — the Gelato Fiasco (Italian ice cream), Richard’s (German), the Great Impasta (Italian), Shere Punjab and Bombay Mahal (Indian), Pedro O’Hara’s and Byrnes’ Irish Pub (Irish), and Ye Olde English Fish & Chips (guess), just to mention a few.
Add to that menu the baked goods at Wild Oats Bakery and Little Dog Café, the doughnuts at Frosty’s, the vegetarian and vegan offerings at Frontier Café, the great deli sandwiches at Big Top Deli and Broadway Deli, and whole foods at Morning Glory Natural Foods and you begin to understand why no one is going hungry in Brunswick.
The energy of downtown is visible and palpable. There are little kids and college kids, families, old folks, and workers on their lunch break in the park. Maine Street bustles with business people, shoppers, diners, and a happy group of crafts-people from the Spindleworks adult disability workshop. At one end of Maine Street there are artists and activists and at the other end students, faculty, staff, and visitors all over Bowdoin.
“Brunswick,” says Gary Lawless, surveying busy Maine Street from his perch at Gulf of Maine Books, “is becoming a destination to visit and destination to move to.”
Foodies, retirees, artists, students, shoppers, pilots, entrepreneurs, and soon train-riders and tourists. Brunswick has been a lot of things — mill town, military town, market town, college town. But destination town? That’s new. That’s next.
- By: Edgar Allen Beem