The local community lost nearly 5,000 jobs when the Naval Air Station Brunswick (NASB) closed in May 2011. Now, U.S. Senators Angus King (I-ME) and Susan Collins (R-ME) hope to repair the damage through co-sponsored legislation to expand the Historically Underutilized Business Zones (HUBZones), including the NASB.
HUBZones helps businesses within the program receive preferential access to federal procurement opportunities. HUBZones are areas demonstrating economic needs, including non-metropolitan communities, land within Native American reservations, or land affected by the closure of a military facility—like NASB. The Small Business Administration, which Karen Mills will continue to lead until another administrator is appointed, oversees the HUBZone program.
HUBZone Expansion Act of 2013, introduced by King and Collins on January 31, would expand the geographic boundaries of the HUBZones to include the town or county where the military based closed, thus providing a greater population of workers to meet the qualifications for new businesses to receive HUBZone benefits. To qualify, 35 percent of employees must live within the HUBZone.
King told the Orient that the expansion of HUBZones would likely attract new businesses, create jobs, and improve the economy.
“The idea is to take care of what I think is an oversight in the law that would otherwise require 35 percent of the employees to actually live on the base property,” King said. He and Collins hope “to expand the footprint where the employees have [to live] to work and the net result will be to hopefully attract some businesses into the Brunswick Naval Air Station and create jobs there that would benefit the Brunswick area and then, Maine.”
In a February 2 press release, Collins wrote that she believes the current HUBZone program is limited by small geographic boundaries.
“The problem is clear: very few people live on these former bases,” Collins wrote in the press release. “That makes it difficult or impossible for businesses that are interested in helping to redevelop them to get the workers they need to meet the requirements of the HUBZone program.”
According to Steve Levesque, executive director of the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, the closure of the base costs the community approximately $140 million annually.
“It’s everything from groceries, to clothes, to cars, to haircuts, dentists,” Levesque said. The closure “certainly had an impact.”
While some companies are already interested in relocating to Brunswick if the legislation passes, Levesque said complete economic recovery is still a distant goal.
“The legislation is just a little piece. It’s just going to give us another, more effective tool,” he said. “It’s going to take some time; it’s going to take another 12 to15 years to recover the economic impact that the base had. You don’t just recreate $140 million in annual payroll right away.”
The NASB was the second-largest employer in Maine at its closing, according to GlobalSecurity.org. As a Brunswick resident, King said he was personally aware of the damage to the Brunswick community after the closure.
“It was a real blow,” King said. “There were businesses on Maine Street in Brunswick that closed and others have struggled because they lost their consumer base. You lose that many jobs, there’s going to be a ripple effect.”
In the State of the Union Address on Tuesday, President Barack Obama placed a large emphasis on creating new jobs within the United States. King said he thinks this bill will be very effective in promoting this goal.
“I can’t put a number on it, whether there will be 200, 500, or 1,000 jobs, but essentially, it is one more piece of the puzzle to allow and encourage further job development at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station,” King said.
Presently, companies interested in recieving HUBZone benefits while relocating to the NASB, would be unable to do so because of the limited number of workers living in qualified areas.
According to King, the bill would also provide benefits to Bowdoin students.
“If it goes through and we get a large number of those jobs back, it will mean more business activity in Brunswick. That means more shopping options and those kinds of things for Bowdoin students,” King said. “It’s to Bowdoin’s advantage for Brunswick to be a thriving community so that it is a more fun place to live.”
The bill was referred to the Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship on January 31 for further review. King said he believes passing this bill this calendar year is one of his and Collins’ goals.
The bill represents the first piece of legislation co-sponsored by Maine’s two senators.
“She and I work very closely together. We sat together last night at the State of the Union, and we’re a team as far as I’m concerned,” King said. “I’m learning from her because she’s been here 16 years and I’ve been here a month, so I’ve got a lot to learn.”
Though King is new to the Senate, many Maine residents are pleased with his congressional progress so far.
“I think Senator King is doing a spectacular job. I think he can bring a lot of common sense to Congress,“ Levesque said. “I think Senator Snowe is a very, very tough act to follow. But Angus is able to work across both parties very well. He’s a pure statesman and he’s a good leader.”