March 17, 2010

Projects help offset Navy base's closure

DENNIS HOEY

— By

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Derek Davis/Staff Photographer: Bruce Schwab, left, demonstrates to the Portland Press Herald how to make a swage using a crimping tool, Friday, Feb. 8, 2008, at the Advanced Technology Center in Brunswick.

Staff Writer

BRUNSWICK — General Dynamics invests $40 million in an expansion project at its Bath shipyard.

Athenahealth of Watertown, Mass., acquires a 130,000-square-foot building in Belfast, and CEO Jonathan J. Bush Jr. announces plans to hire 600 workers over the next several years.

Bowdoin College graduate J. Hilary Rockett Jr. and his partner, Joe Thibert, are investing $25 million to build Maine Street Station, a proposed complex of offices, retail stores, restaurants, a hotel and a train station in downtown Brunswick. The project could create 250 jobs.

The city of Bath invests $2 million to acquire 26 acres so it can expand its Wing Farm business park, a project that will create space for up to 10 new businesses.

All across the midcoast, there are signs that the economy is robust and moving forward.

But there is also an underlying sense of dread as the date for closing the Brunswick Naval Air Station draws closer.

The impact could be felt sooner than anticipated. Base redevelopment officials say that some military families will relocate to Jacksonville, Fla., this fall.

Once that happens, the mass exodus will have begun. More than 2,300 homes that are owned by or rented to military families in the region are expected to become vacant between now and the Sept. 2011 base closure.

''I think we have to manage our expectations because the base-closure experts tell us that all base-closure communities will go through a slowdown and there is no question we will have an abundant supply of housing,'' said Mathew Eddy, Brunswick's director of economic development.

Eddy also serves as the chairman of the Midcoast Council for Business Development and Planning, a nonprofit development company whose mission is to retain existing businesses and recruit new ones to the Brunswick, Sagadahoc and Lincoln region.

Despite those concerns, there is reason to be optimistic. Eddy cited a string of major expansion projects that are under way -- all in Brunswick -- and are linked to the composites industry.

Expansion projects at Brunswick Technologies Inc., Harbor Technologies and Allied Composites are indicators that the industry -- at least in Brunswick -- is growing.

Those industries are now being fed with students from the new Maine Advanced Technology Center on Industry Road in Brunswick.

ATC Director Steven Schaefer said more than 200 students have enrolled at the center since it opened last year in the former Brunswick Times Record newspaper building.

The campus, which serves as a satellite to the Southern Maine Community College in South Portland, trains students in subjects such as marine rigging and closed-mold technology.

There won't be any new development occurring at the Brunswick Naval Air Station this year. In fact, there probably won't be any new tenants at the base until late 2010 at the earliest, according to Steve Levesque.

Levesque, who serves as director of the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, said all his agency can do now is market the base to prospective tenants.

''People have to understand that business development has a long incubation period,'' Levesque said.

Levesque sees the midcoast economy hinging on the successful redevelopment of the Navy base. Problem is, there won't be any new development until after the Navy has completed its mission in four years.

Aware that there will be a down period after the Navy base closes, communities feel a sense of urgency to fill that space with new businesses and jobs.

Brunswick is investigating the feasibility of developing one of two sites located in western Brunswick for a business park.

Many town officials now believe a business park is essential.

''We need to move forward with this'' business park, Brunswick Councilman David Watson remarked during a recent discussion of the topic. ''If we do nothing and we stagnate, we could be in rough shape, because very soon we are going to be losing a major source of revenues.''

Topsham's director of planning, Rich Roedner, also is concerned about the impact the base closure will have on his town. That is partly why the town designated a 140-acre tract of land on the western side of Interstate 295 for a business park.

There are no efforts under way to develop the park or recruit tenants -- the park would need new roads, as well as sewer and water lines -- but it's available if the need should arise.

In the meantime, the town continues to see growth at the Topsham Fair Mall, where two major tenants have made development proposals in recent weeks. BJ's Wholesale Club and World Gym could join a long list of national chains there, including Home Depot, Best Buy, Dick's Sporting Goods and Target.

''It had been quiet for a while (at the mall), but these new applications attest to the quality of that location,'' Roedner said.

The city of Bath plans to use a tax increment finance district to capture revenues from a $40 million expansion at Bath Iron Works. That revenue will be used to expand the Wing Farm business park and pump an estimated $7 million into improvements to its downtown.

Jim DeMartini, spokesman for BIW, said the shipyard's new 106-foot-tall Ultra Hall expansion project will allow workers to outfit larger ship parts in an enclosed, safe environment.

DeMartini said the project represents a $40 million investment by BIW's parent company, General Dynamics, and signifies that the shipyard is here to stay -- despite industry fluctuations that recently resulted in more than 70 layoffs.

Farther up the coast, in Rockland, Athenahealth has already started hiring personnel, following through on its promise of hiring 100 new employees by 2009.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be reached at 725-8795 or at

dhoey@pressherald.com

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