The Naval Air Station Brunswick (NASB) took the next step toward integrating into civilian Brunswick this week when it relaxed its entry restrictions at the front gate.
The altered restrictions, which began on October 15, have reignited a discussion about the economic impact of the base's closure on Brunswick and the surrounding towns.
"The primary purpose of doing this is for redevelopment and to let businesses look at relocating here," said NASB Public Affairs Officer John Ripley. "The captain has made it clear that if civilians want to look at the property, [they should] feel free to come check it out."
The measure makes it easier for civilians and business owners to look at the base's land. Civilians no longer need military escorts to enter the base; instead, guards will check vehicles at the gate from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, and unsuspicious vehicles will be allowed to proceed onto the base.
NASB is the last active-duty Department of Defense airfield in the Northeast.
The base is scheduled to close in May 2011 following the completion of the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission Report (BRAC).
According to Ripley, the new entry measure is partly a consequence of decreased security at the base.
The base's most valuable assets, such as its planes, have long since departed, and the base is down to a population of approximately 250 from its original population of about 4,000.
"With all the squadrons gone and most of the people gone, the commanding officer of the base decided that [for] the last several months of the base's life [entry restrictions will be relaxed]," said Ripley.
He noted, though, that since the base is a federal installation, civilians are still subject to federal laws, rules and restrictions, which may differ from Maine state law.
For example, all bicyclists are required to wear helmets, and hunting is prohibited.
According to Ripley, the relaxed entry restrictions also address the economic impact of the base's closure.
The base's closure raises concerns about its impact on Brunswick's retail and real estate sectors, as well as on the shrinking number of children in the town's elementary schools.
According to globalsecurity.com, NASB was the second largest employer in Maine while in operation. Its air station alone provided over $187 million to the local economy.
"You can't take away 3,000 plus jobs from a small local community like ours without [having] some significant...impact," said Professor of Economics David Vail. The impact ranges from "the number of kids in the schools...to the customer base for retail activity in the area and absolutely extending to real estate."
"The base closing is coming on top of the...recession and the [depression of the] national economy, so in terms of sheer timing, this is an awful time for this to be happening," Vail continued. "If you think back to the last years when Clinton was president, there was unemployment under 4 percent. That's the sort of environment where if you have to close a base...you want to do it."
According to Vail, the economic impact of the base's closure will be strongly felt in Brunswick's housing sector. Although military personnel's former housing will provide affordable starter homes for middle class families, the influx of low rental housing into the real estate market will decrease the value of housing for current homeowners.
"[If] people now own a house worth $150,000 and they have to sell it...[for] the next five to 10 years they wouldn't get the money out of it that they put [into it]," explained Vail. "Homeowners in the market trying to sell their homes may find that they can't find as much for them, and this is happening on top of the nationally depressed housing market."
Vail also noted that Brunswick will be hit more heavily in the retail sector since it is the primary regional trade center for several surrounding communities.
"Residents come to Brunswick to do much of their shopping and dining," said Vail. "All those communities will feel [the economic impact of the base's closure], or are already feeling it in the lost jobs. But as the regional trade center, Brunswick will feel it a bit more heavily on the retail end."
According to Ripley, Brunswick will also be affected by NASB's closure in the community service sector.
"Naval Air Station Brunswick has been a community within a community," said Ripley. "We've tried to serve the community in other ways with service projects...[but] the overall impact [of the base's closure] is enormous."
"The Redevelopment Authority hopefully down the line will be successful in bringing in new businesses and new jobs and replacing all the assets that [will be] lost [when the base closes]," Ripley added.
Still, Vail sees the long-term benefits of the base's closure and reintegration into Brunswick outweighing the immediate short-term effects.
"There will be pain in the short run and maybe the medium run if we define that as the coming five years," said Vail. "But for the long run, this [base] is just prime location...given time, I think the local economy will probably thrive as a result of the conversion of that military facility into a civilian facility."
In particular, Vail envisions an influx of technological and professional jobs to replace the military jobs lost during NASB's closure. According to Vail, the new jobs will gradually increase the level of income within Brunswick.
"There's a mix of negative and positive...from an economic [view] and from the point of view of the community's vitality," said Vail. "The question is how long is it going to get from here to the long-term [benefits]...how long will the pain last? Is it going to be a 10-year transition or a 20-year transition?"