BRUNSWICK — Inside a former Navy department store, online home furnishings retailer Wayfair is finishing a 52,000-square-foot makeover to accommodate up to 500 employees at a new contact center.
Where a mobile home park once stood, more than 150 contractors are erecting a $12 million Avita memory care facility that will employ 100.
What once was a 90,000-square-foot aircraft maintenance building now is called TechPlace, home to 26 early-stage businesses pursuing innovations from pharmaceuticals to performance clothing.
Near the executive airpark apron, a renewable energy plant is using methane gas from sewage sludge to make enough electricity to power 1,000 homes.
Five years ago Tuesday, the Brunswick Naval Air Station was decommissioned, capping 68 years of military presence here. It was the official end to a process that began in 2005, when the base was earmarked for closure. In 2009, the last P-3 Orion aircraft took off for its new home in Jacksonville, Florida, taking with it more than 5,000 military and civilian jobs and $140 million in direct annual payroll.
And as a deep national recession took hold, local residents could only wonder what might replace the economic impact of a Navy base, and when.
Five years later those answers are becoming clear, and the news is better than could have been hoped for in 2011.
Brunswick Landing, the business campus that is evolving from the former air station, has so far attracted 950 jobs, easily surpassing the 700 jobs that had been projected for the five-year mark in the base redevelopment plan. More than 90 companies have set up shop, bringing with them more than $50 million in annual payroll and $175 million in private investment.
If Wayfair reaches 500 jobs, if SaviLinx – a customer service contract company – adds 200 positions, as planned, and if a handful of other expansions come to fruition, Brunswick Landing will be on a path this year to host 1,600 jobs, a benchmark that hadn’t been expected until 10 years into redevelopment.
At this pace, Brunswick Landing can remain ahead of projections, said Steve Levesque, a former state economic development director. Levesque came here soon after the closure was first announced and now serves as executive director of the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, which is overseeing the transformation.
“I think we have a real opportunity to have 4,000 to 5,000 jobs in the next 10 years,” he said.
FACTORS COMBINE TO BRING SUCCESS
The federal government’s downsizing of military installations over the past three decades under the Base Realignment and Closure Act has been a mixed bag for many communities. A 2013 report by the Association of Defense Communities, a membership organization, found that seven years into the 2005 round of closures, just one-third of former base property had been transferred and prepared for redevelopment.
Redevelopment projects with the greatest success were well located and drew up sustainable, realistic plans that focused on integrated development, reuse of existing facilities and community stewardship of the environment, according to a presentation by the Matrix Design Group of Denver, Colorado. The presentation included case studies of four reuse plans, including Brunswick’s, that hit those points.
Brunswick, Levesque said, benefited from a combination of factors. It’s within commuting distance of Portland, Lewiston-Auburn and Augusta, and a 50-mile drive from two-thirds of the state’s labor force. It’s on Interstate 295 and Route 1, making it accessible for Boston-area businesses looking to grow, such as Wayfair.
Just before closing, the Navy invested $150 million in upgrades to base housing, hangars and the power system. On top of that, the redevelopment authority found engaged partners in state and local government, Maine’s congressional delegation and the Navy. To date, more than $36 million in government money has been invested in the redevelopment, most of it from the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Defense. The base also is designated a Pine Tree Development Zone, which offers tax breaks and other financial incentives.
“You need to have all those pieces,” Levesque said.
The base redevelopment plan calls for recovering the total economic and job losses – the $140 million annual payroll – within 10 to 12 years. The long-term goal, running out 25 years or so, is a maximum redevelopment of the base with more than 12,000 jobs created.
A major obstacle, Levesque said, is a familiar one in Maine: finding enough workers with the right skills in a state with an aging population and little growth. The arrival of Southern Maine Community College on the campus and a University of Maine partnership that features customized workforce training for businesses at Brunswick Landing may help ease that labor shortfall.
Another challenge is the vast scale of the project. The air station covered 3,200 acres in Brunswick and included a former base annex in Topsham. It had more than 957,000 square feet of building space, equal to five Walmart supercenters.
The redevelopment plan set aside roughly half the acreage for natural areas and recreation. Airport operations take up 500 acres; housing covers 215 acres. The rest is a matrix of business, education and mixed-use space.
Brunswick Landing has yet to accumulate the components that create the critical mass of human activity seen and felt at a busy military base or business campus. Today, it still has a vacant feel, but that’s changing. The Sunray Animal Clinic is open, built on lots where old housing was torn down. Meals with locally sourced food are now being served at the New Beet Market. The former Navy hotel has become Coastal Landing, a retirement and assisted living complex. Dogs are barking behind Blue Dog Daycare. Cardio dance and step aerobics are underway in the former Navy fitness center, now The Bath Area Family YMCA’s new Landing Y facility.
STRATEGICALLY TARGETING SIX SECTORS
The redevelopment plan was formed from market studies and public meetings, and from taking stock in the facility’s assets. That led to targeting six sectors for job creation: Aviation and aerospace. Renewable energy. Composite technologies. Information technology. Biotechnology and biomedicine. Education.
The airfield has two 8,000-foot runways and 650,000 square feet of hangar space. Other military bases have used similar assets to offer commercial air service, but that’s not planned at Brunswick. The authority chose not to compete with Portland International Jetport. Instead, it’s focused on becoming an executive airport for private plane owners, and has grown steadily, with 15,000 takeoffs/landings expected this year. It also has worked to attract businesses that can use the massive hangars to maintain and build aircraft, such as Tempus Jets and Kestrel Aircraft Co.
One former aircraft maintenance building featured numerous shops. That became the perfect venue for TechPlace, a warren of incubator spaces for startups that can share work and meeting areas.
STARC Systems manufacturers modular containment panels that create an airtight, clean environment for hospitals and other institutions during construction and renovation. Bruce Bickford, a co-founder, said a lease package at TechPlace that includes utilities, compressed air and office space has helped the four-person company concentrate on its product and grow sales nationally. Bickford said the company is on pace to triple production.
“TechPlace has been a great place to be,” he said. “It has services and amenities that we’re taking advantage of.”
TechPlace also is home to Village Green Ventures, which has started to generate power at the 1-megawatt anaerobic digester. Brunswick Landing has a power purchase agreement to buy the output, and the company hopes to double it over time.
“We wanted to be part of the Brunwick Landing compound,” said Mikkel Levine, a co-founder. “We can sell power to the redevelopment authority and help support the expansion.”
Brunswick Landing sees renewable energy as a niche sector. In a field on the campus fringe, Bowdoin College has installed 2,147 solar panels. They make up part of the state’s largest solar farm, which has a capacity to generate 1.2 megawatts, or 8 percent of Bowdoin’s electricity needs. Brunswick Landing is marketing four other sites for solar-electric development.
Brunswick Landing’s diversity, and its ability to tailor space to a company’s needs, creates opportunities for relocation, said Peter DelGreco, president and chief executive of Maine & Company. DelGreco was instrumental in bringing Wayfair to Brunswick Landing and a second site in Bangor. The company didn’t have time to build new, he said, but found good reuse space in the former Navy store. When Wayfair said it needed more parking, the redevelopment authority tore down old buildings and created a 200-space lot.
“Steve Levesque and his team were incredibly collaborative with the folks at Wayfair in figuring out how to make it work,” he said.
DelGreco said businesses looking to relocate ask about issues that will be important to their workers, such as nearby housing, recreational areas and places to eat and shop.
“Brunswick Landing is doing it right,” he said, “because those kinds of amenities need to happen. When you start to see a defined area with a density of people, you’ll start to see the amenities to serve them.”