March 28, 2013

Cutbacks ground Maine air show

By Dennis Hoey dhoey@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

BRUNSWICK — Uncertainty caused by federal budget cuts has forced the cancellation of this year's Great State of Maine Air Show, which was scheduled for September at the former U.S. Navy base in Brunswick.

click image to enlarge

About 40,000 people attended last year's Great State of Maine Air Show.

John Patriquin / Staff Writer

Members of the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority voted Wednesday to cancel the show, which typically draws tens of thousands of visitors.

They were convinced that the federal spending cuts that took effect March 1 and their impact on the Navy's Blue Angels precision flying team made moving ahead with the planning too risky, said Steve Levesque, executive director of the authority.

"Financially, we can't make a show work without the military assets," Levesque said. "We're saddened. It's a big event and something we look forward to providing to the people of Maine. But people wouldn't buy tickets to the show unless there was a military presence."

Levesque said that on March 5, the U.S. Department of Defense issued a memo ordering "all aerial demonstrations, including flyovers, jump team demonstrations, and participation in civilian air shows and military open houses, to cease as of April 1, 2013."

The Blue Angels, who last performed in Brunswick in 2011, were booked to perform at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station -- now called Brunswick Landing -- on the weekend of Sept. 14-15.

In light of the across-the-board spending cuts known as "sequestration," the Defense Department has said the Blue Angels must take a back seat to ships and airplanes operating overseas.

Lt. Katie Kelly, spokeswoman for the Blue Angels, told Reuters earlier this month that the spending cuts will result in the cancellation of more than two dozen air shows from April to September.

The Blue Angels website says more than 11 million spectators watch their shows each year. The flying program, begun in 1946, costs about $40 million a year.

Canceling the shows remaining on the schedule for 2013 would save about $28 million, say Navy officials.

The Blue Angels website still lists Brunswick on the performance schedule, but Levesque said the redevelopment authority would have to start planning now for a show to be held in September.

Dozens of contracts and agreements must be signed in advance of the show, covering civilian aerobatic pilots and companies that provide all types of services, from golf carts to portable toilets.

Without any guarantees from the Navy, Levesque said, "We just can't afford to take a chance."

Putting on the show costs the authority about $750,000, he said, and ticket sales and sponsorships help cover that cost.

In past years, the Navy hosted the shows and did not charge admission. The redevelopment authority began hosting them in 2011, three years after the Navy base closed.

Levesque said the Army's Golden Knights Parachute Team and the Navy's F-18 Demonstration Team were also booked for Brunswick in September, but had already canceled their appearances. He said he has not yet heard from the Blue Angels.

John Moncure, chairman of the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, said there is no air show without the Blue Angels.

"This was a Navy town and a lot of people love to watch the Angels," he said.

Last year's Great State of Maine Air Show featured a performance by the Air Force Thunderbirds, but they didn't draw as big a crowd as the Blue Angels did in 2011, Moncure said.

About 40,000 people attended last year's show. The 2011 air show was cut short by one day when bad weather brought on by Hurricane Irene forced the authority to cancel Sunday's events. The air show typically is held on a Saturday and Sunday.

Dan Marcotte of Bakersfield, Vt., a stunt pilot who flies a biplane, was scheduled to perform in Brunswick this year. He said the sequestration has wiped out a number of shows across the country.

"I just got word today that an air show in Cleveland was canceled due to sequestration," he said Wednesday. "We are all suffering. ... But promoters are in a bind because the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds sell tickets."

Ken Burton, who owns the Fat Boy Drive In with his wife, Jeanne, is in the perfect position to watch the air shows. His restaurant on Bath Road is at the end of a runway at Brunswick Landing.

For past shows, he has shut down the restaurant and, along with his employees, climbed onto its roof to watch the Blue Angels.

"I love their act and their precision flying," Burton said.

He said he is neutral about the financial impact the show has on his business. Many spectators come for just one day and leave without spending all that much at Fat Boy.

Margo Knight, vice chairwoman of the Brunswick Town Council, said the show's cancellation is not good news.

"Any time Brunswick loses an opportunity like that, it's a big loss for the economy," she said.

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: dhoey@pressherald.com

 

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