In the fall of 2005, soon after the decision was made to close the Brunswick Naval Air Station, some residents of the area foresaw economic doom, with empty storefronts along Brunswick’s Maine Street and a Navy base filled with vacant buildings and hangars.

More than five years later, Brunswick’s downtown has several new businesses, the former base has eight new tenants and, as one town official said, “there is a sense of optimism” as civilians take ownership of what is now Brunswick Landing.

Locals say the Navy’s departure hasn’t been without economic pain.

The rental housing market has been flooded with more than 700 units that were designated for military housing, an elementary school is closing in part because of declining enrollment, and business owners say their sales have decreased as enlisted personnel have been deployed to other parts of the country.

One business owner who has felt the impact of 5,000 military personnel leaving is Ken Burton, an owner of the Fat Boy Drive-In, near the entrance to the base.

The restaurant, which opened in 1955, features drive-up stands where waitresses come to car windows and take orders. Burton said he has seen about a 5 percent drop in sales each year for the past four years.

“I think everyone’s business dropped off as people left, but the community has been very good to us,” Burton said. “It was not as bad as everyone expected it would be.”

He said it could be another three or four years before his sales return to pre-base-closure levels.

Brunswick Town Manager Gary Brown said, “It has not been as bad as people anticipated it would be. There’s a sense of optimism.”

Brown noted that Amtrak trains will start serving downtown Brunswick in 2012 — a prospect that has generated commercial development around Brunswick Station, a new office and retail development off Maine Street.

A hotel — the Inn at Brunswick Station — is being developed on Maine Street. And last weekend, Cool As A Moose celebrated the grand opening of a store in the former Grand City space — a building that many considered to be Maine Street’s anchor.

Caroline Kurrus, a spokeswoman for Cool As A Moose, said its owner, Kip Stone, plans to move the company’s headquarters, as well as ArtForms, from the Dana Warp Mill in Westbrook to the Brunswick location.

ArtForms is the wholesale side of Stone’s venture. It designs and manufactures screen-printed garments that are sold across the U.S. The two companies will bring about 25 jobs to Brunswick.

“Kip looked everywhere and it took a while to find the right place,” Kurrus said. “The benefits of being in Brunswick outweighed any concerns we might have had about the base closing.”

Joanne King said her small business, Brunswick Taxi Service, felt the financial sting as sailors left Maine for other assignments.

“Our business declined by 25 to 30 percent,” said King, who is chairwoman of Brunswick’s Town Council. “The sailors were vital to our business.”

King said she has been encouraged by the efforts of the Midcoast Redevelopment Authority, which has secured eight new tenants for the former military base. However, Realtors have told her that the rental housing market isn’t in good shape.

Brown, the town manager, said Brunswick schools also have been affected.

The Jordan Acres School will be “mothballed” for a few years because of declining enrollment, something Brown attributes in part to the departure of military families.

The elementary school, which is closer to the base than any other school, could reopen if enrollments increase.

Art Mayo, chairman of the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, said eight tenants are already operating or are coming to Brunswick Landing. Those tenants will create enough jobs to replace the 650 civilian jobs that were lost when the base closed, he said.

“It would appear, at least on the surface, that things have not been as bad as some predicted it would be,” Mayo said.

“We will bring the area back,” he said, “but it will take time. It’s not going to happen overnight.”

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: [email protected]