BRUNSWICK — Days after the permanent departure of another squadron from Brunswick Naval Air Station, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, on Tuesday told town officials and business leaders that the region is poised to endure unprecedented and increasingly real economic challenges.

Collins’ speech at the Brunswick Downtown Association’s spring luncheon at Brunswick Golf Club was unique and underscored the gathering anxiety over the 2011 closure of BNAS. The senator has made repeated appearances in Bath to show support for Bath Iron Works, but her visits to Brunswick have either been rare or understated. 

But Collins was anything but subtle Tuesday. In between defending her support of President Barack Obama’s massive stimulus bill, Collins attempted to reassure those bracing for base closure that Brunswick has an advocate on Capitol Hill.

“Brunswick has always been extremely fortunate,” the senator said. “Its economy has long been supported by the three-legged stool of (BNAS), BIW and Bowdoin College. And now we face the loss of one of those legs. It’s difficult not to feel off-balance.”

“Our test now is to remain united during this transition,” she added. “The transition will be difficult, but it will produce new opportunities and prosperity.”

Collins praised the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, the organization implementing the civilian reuse plan for the base. 

“There’s no question that the redevelopment authority is looking to the future with both vision and purpose,” Collins said.

Collins said she is particularly encouraged by the MRRA’s efforts to establish what she described as an aviation cluster at the base. The so-called cluster is modeled after the region’s composites sector, which uses an education institution to lure businesses by tailoring its curriculum to training needs. 

Embry Riddle Aeronautical University is slated to become a tenant at BNAS. In addition, Southern Maine Community College and the University of Maine are attempting to create a partnership that would allow SMCC students to earn engineering degrees from UMaine.

While SMCC has won a public benefit conveyance for several buildings at the base, it is seeking $4.75 million from the state to renovate the property and finance its move. The Legislature is reviewing funding for the proposal. 

Collins also reaffirmed her support for legislation sponsored by Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, that would encourage no-cost economic development conveyances of base property. MRRA officials hope the bill will win approval from Washington lawmakers because, they say, it will speed up redevelopment efforts in Brunswick.

As it stands, the U.S. Navy is required by law to seek fair-market value before relinquishing property to private interests. Prior to the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure, which included BNAS, military agencies were allowed to give economic development conveyances. The 2005 BRAC changed the statue, leaving base closure communities worrying that the military could hold property for years with no hope of reuse. 

Military agencies’ pursuit of fair-market value has become even more worrisome for redevelopment authorities given the widely publicized cost overruns of the 2005 closure round. The process has exceeded original estimates by $32.4 billion, according to reports from the Government Accountability Office.

Collins referred to the overruns on Tuesday, saying she was always skeptical of the savings the BRAC Commission had used to justify base closures.

Collins also spoke highly of the $23.5 million Maine Street Station project, the multi-use development that’s become a primary focus of the Brunswick Town Council. Collins and other members of the state’s congressional delegation were credited with helping Brunswick secure more than $900,000 in federal funding for project infrastructure.

The town’s focus has since shifted to the extension of the Amtrak Downeaster from Portland to Brunswick. The extension is viewed as a boon to Maine Street Station, which is slated to feature a 2,100-square-foot train station. 

Funding legislation is in place for rail improvements between Portland and Brunswick. However, the Downeaster’s operating subsidy is scheduled to expire Sept. 31. Eighty percent of the subsidy comes from the federal government; Maine has traditionally provided the other 20 percent. 

A renewed commitment to rail funding by the Obama administration would appear to bode well for the Downeaster, but Maine’s budget woes continue to put the state subsidy in doubt. 

Collins told the crowd that she supported the Downeaster extension. However, when asked by Councilor Joanne King how the town could lobby support for the passenger rail’s operating subsidy, Collins was noncommittal. 

“I don’t have a magic source of money for that,” the senator said. “But I certainly think it’s a worthy goal. … it would be a real benefit to all Brunswick has to offer.”

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or [email protected]

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