The latest milestone in the meticulously planned closure of the Brunswick Naval Air Station (NASB) will come tonight, at 10 p.m., when its two massive 8,000-foot runways close.
The base—the last active-duty Department of Defense airfield in the northeast—was a casualty of the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission Report (BRAC). It will close entirely in May 2011.
"It's a very refined process," said NASB Public Affairs Officer John Ripley of closing the base, "and there's a huge team of people, civilian and Navy, working on it to ensure the transition is smooth and on-schedule."
There will be no ceremony tonight, Ripley said. The most senior and most junior personnel will simply stand by a computer control screen; the most senior will turn the lights up to full brightness, and the most junior will turn them off.
Air traffic has already slowed to a trickle. Radar was shut down and approach airspace handed off to Portland on October 1. Tomorrow, then, most of Brunswick will not even notice a difference; the skies have grown quiet already.
The base once employed close to 5,000 people, making it the second-largest employer in Maine, according to GlobalSecurity.org. Now, the burden is on Bowdoin, Brunswick and the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority (MRRA) to make the most of the 3,200 acres soon to be left vacant.
With approval from the U.S. Department of Education, Bowdoin is set to receive 175 developable acres on the west side of the base as a public benefit (no-cost) conveyance—an 80 percent increase over the existing 215-acre campus.
However, the College will not know exactly what land it is getting until the Navy issues its environmental impact statement, now slated to be released this summer. Until then, Bowdoin is in a "holding pattern," said Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration & Treasurer Katy Longley.
"We've talked about possible biology labs, environmental labs, athletic fields, administrative buildings, possibly dorms—but we don't have any plans I can show you," said Longley. "It's still two or three years off."
The land includes a 6-acre parcel on Bath Road, where the College intends to build a facilities building and a warehouse.
Bowdoin will also be taking ownership of Building 644 for use as an Information Technology (IT) data center, supplementing, and in some respects replacing, the data center in the basement of Hubbard Hall.
Building 644 formerly housed a P-3 Orion simulator, training pilots to fly the primary aircraft of the NASB squadrons.
Now, it will allow IT to hook into a new high-speed fiber optic network that will connect Bowdoin to research facilities around the state and beyond. It could also help the College establish important off-site backup systems.
More-robust disaster recovery is "one of our major goals," said Deputy CIO Rebecca Sandlin.
"Everyone I've heard is talking about this. Even people in the town know that Bowdoin is moving into the building," said Sandlin. "I've had a lot of flak from people in the town who know I'm working at Bowdoin and say, couldn't we do something better with the land?"
"We have an excellent relationship with the MRRA, the Department of Education and the Town of Brunswick," said Longley. "One of the plans is to have a bike path through some of our property and some of the town's property."
According to the MRRA's Reuse Master Plan, 51 percent of the base's land has been allocated for development, and 49 percent has been allocated for "recreation, open space and natural areas." However, like Bowdoin, both MRRA and the Town of Brunswick remain a ways away from acting on their ideas.
"We're still somewhere around 18 months before the Navy's actually going to close the base," said Brunswick Town Manager Gary Brown, who was, until recently, a member of the MRRA board. "The staff of the Authority is always talking to businesses, but with the understanding that it's going to be a while. There's still an awful lot of analysis that needs to be done—where are the water lines, where are the sewer lines...."
"Redevelopment of bases takes 15, 20 years," said Brown. "We haven't really started yet."
MRRA's proposed land use program devotes 730 acres to the airport and aviation-related business, carrying on NASB's 67-year legacy.
"We hope to be able to as soon as we can have a civilian airport there," said Executive Director of MRRA Steve Levesque.
MRRA is currently negotiating with FlightLevel Aviation to act as a fixed base operator. It will not be a commercial airport like Portland, but may be accessible via charter flights.
Additionally, the Blue Angels have agreed to return for another Great State of Maine Air Show in August 2011. In the past, the show drew upwards of 200,000 people; a 2007 Associated Press article suggests it was the largest single-event gathering in Maine.
Levesque said that he sees the closure as one step back that enables two steps forward.
"The goal is to go beyond where we are, where we were when the base was active," said Levesque. "We want to have upwards of 14,000 people working on the base—a lot of science and technology jobs. That's where we want to be, that's our ultimate goal."
The short term is bleaker. Brown estimated that the business community is losing somewhere in the vicinity of $120 million in payroll.
"You can't lose that kind of spending power without it having some impact on businesses," said Brown.
Furthermore, hundreds of houses formerly occupied by NASB personnel are flooding the market, and local schools are losing "probably somewhere close to $800,000 in federal aid," said Brown, though funding will be phased out gradually.
This will not be the first time the Navy has left Brunswick. NASB was constructed in 1943, but deactivated in 1946 in the post-World War II military drawdown. Bowdoin leased some of the land for a short time, but in 1951 the Navy moved quickly to re-commission the base in response to the outbreak of the Korean War.
In the years that followed, NASB squadrons were involved in Cold War surveillance of Soviet submarines, recovery of early U.S.-manned spaceflight crew capsules, Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In 2005, however, the Department of Defense's BRAC list recommended NASB be closed and its aircraft relocated to Jacksonville, Florida. It was estimated the closure would cost $147 million but yield net savings of $239 million over 20 years. Community protestations—citing the modernity of the base, the strategic location, and the economic impact—were in vain.
The first squadron left in December 2008. The last—VP-26—left for Jacksonville on November 26.
"Some are glad to see this go," said NASB AWOC Don Nashawaty, indicating the snow blanketing the ground. "And then there are others, like me, who prefer it here. Jacksonville's too hot. I'm from New England. We have all four seasons!"
VP-26's latest task has been flying reconnaissance missions over earthquake-devastated Haiti, said Nashawaty.
As he drove around, he pointed out many new buildings that had been constructed only shortly before the BRAC decision—new barracks, a new control tower, a new hangar. The 166,335 square foot hangar, built in 2005, was the first capable of housing the new P-8 Poseidon aircraft that will be replacing the P-3 Orion.
"It's amazing how much this area has grown since I've been here," said Nashawaty, who came to NASB in 1989.
"I never thought it would be closed," he said. "Then it happened. And I was sad."
Said Nashawaty, "I'll be retiring here."
"I think the community certainly is sad about the closure, because it represents the end to an era. It was really part of the community," said Levesque.
However, he added, "I think the community by and large is extremely excited about the reuse plan in the future, about what this can be. People are saying 'OK, let's have a new future.' I think the community's embracing that, and glad to get on with it."
"A lot of familiar faces are no longer going to be around," said Rick Beaudet, an employee at the Bohemian Coffee House. "Brunswick, if they didn't have Bowdoin College, would probably be close to shutting down."
"It's a bummer to lose long-distance customers," said Katie Harris, who works at the Gelato Fiasco, referring to the military personnel who came from all over to train at NASB.
"Some of our customers that have been loyal to us since we opened have left," said Gelato Fiasco co-founder Josh Davis. "They miss us, we miss them."
"Before, we were a college and a Navy town, and now we'll be more of a college town," said Longley. "I think the diversity of both constituents was helpful for the town of Brunswick, so I see it as a loss, personally."
Bowdoin may be insulated, but it is not isolated.
"What hurts Brunswick is going to hurt Bowdoin," said Longley. "Bowdoin's part of Brunswick, and Brunswick's part of Bowdoin."
"For the region in the long run, I think there's a chance it will end up being very positive," said Davis. "It's the short-term consequences that we have to get through."
Said Levesque, "It's going to be an exciting place."