BNAS closure likely to sting

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LEWISTON – The ripples of Brunswick Naval Air Station’s closure will be felt far beyond Brunswick.

An estimated 12 percent of its civilian workers and 9.4 percent of its military personnel – nearly 400 people in all – live in Androscoggin County.

However, the biggest impact across the region, to the people who sell products and services to the base or its employees, is still being figured.

“That’s the big question,” said Gerard Dennison, a Lewiston-based analyst for the Maine Department of Labor. “Nobody knows.”

The scale will be huge, especially close to Brunswick.

The 3,435 workers at the base account for an estimated $96 million per year in salaries, according a recently released study by two private firms, Career Prospects Inc. and Planning Solutions Inc.

The workers’ salaries pay rents, mortgages, groceries and cars from Brunswick to towns as far north as Phillips, where two civilian workers from the base live.

“I think the impact will be bigger than people think,” said Frank O’Hara, vice president for the Hallowell-based Planning Solutions.

Though 713 civilians are scheduled to lose their jobs by the time the base closes in September 2011, twice that many could be lost to companies that sell to the base or its workers, O’Hara said.

Though it will be worse in Brunswick, where more than half the military workers live, “The effects inland will be significant,” O’Hara said.

In towns such as Lisbon, where as many as 200 people with ties to the base live, the effects could be felt by the sudden listing of dozens of homes by local real estate agents, he said.

“Even if 25 percent of the military people own their own home, that’s 35 or 40 houses,” said Dan Feeney, Lisbon’s economic development director. “It’ll be felt.”

He doesn’t predict that housing prices will fall. Instead, he believes the rate of growth will likely decline for a few years.

“It will come back,” he said. “Right now, it’s a good time to invest in Lisbon.”

Workers from the base are spread out across the county: Lewiston, Auburn, Sabattus, Minot, Durham and Turner.

In Lewiston-Auburn, the impact is likely to be “negligible,” said Dennison, who meets routinely with base officials.

However, like O’Hara, he said there has been too little analysis.

Smaller paychecks

Though it’s been nine months since the Base Realignment and Closure Commission voted to close the base, no office or agency has looked in-depth at the so-called indirect impacts of the closure.

The reason is that few people thought the base would close, O’Hara said.

The State Planning Office scrutinized the base last summer, while it was targeted to shrink but not close. Since its fate is set, the office plans to do more. A new analyst was just hired. A report is due at the end of the summer.

Some data is known, though.

Dennison has gathered information on more than 500 civilian workers. He believes most will have an easy time finding other work.

The base is scheduled to begin laying off civilian workers as soon as the fall of 2008. They include 40 firefighters, 38 teaching assistants, 31 retail salespeople and 23 police officers.

“Most are already employed in growth occupations,” Dennison said.

They will likely have to accept smaller paychecks, though.

For instance, clerks who earn $34,027 in annual wages at the base would earn just $23,545 in the private sector, Dennison said.

In all, 29 of the top 41 civilian jobs at the base pay more than their off-base counterparts, Dennison said. The Maine Department of Labor has opened an on-base transition center to help the workers prepare for the private sector.

However, the biggest effects are still unseen, O’Hara said. The thousands of military workers at the base won’t remain in Maine looking for jobs, as they would if they were employed by a factory that closed.

Instead, they will simply vanish.

For businesses in Brunswick and surrounding towns, the effect will likely be similar to a that of a Wal-Mart opening its doors, he said.

“It rarely kills a business, but the money gets sucked out,” O’Hara said.

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