Brunswick base redevelopers face stiff competition

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BRUNSWICK — In the seven years since Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority took over the Brunswick Executive Airport, Executive Director Steven Levesque has courted more than a dozen aeronautic businesses and provided a base for 35 aircraft. Still, about one-third of the airport’s 650,000 square feet remains unused.

The airport is in the midst of a 10-year, $40 million investment program with the Federal Aviation Administration, Levesque said. The program funds improvements, including runway lighting, a new $3 million hangar and safety upgrades. The goal is to make the airport, which was used by the U.S. Navy for about 60 years, suitable for civilian use, he said. In some cases that means insulating the hangar doors, installing radiant heat, making the restrooms handicapped accessible and switching to energy-efficient lighting, all changes that Levesque called “significant spruce-ups.”

Even with these adjustments, it can be hard to compete with the southern states when trying to draw new companies, in part because of New England’s harsh climate. Electric costs are higher in the Northeast and runways need to be cleared of snow. During a cold snap, it can cost up to $20,000 per month to heat a single hangar, split among the tenants, Levesque said.

Additionally, southern states can offer more business incentives, he said, adding that they are “more aggressive with economic development … they’ve chosen to make those investments.”

Southern states are also primarily right-to-work states, which means that “no person can be compelled, as a condition of employment, to join or not to join, nor to pay dues to a labor union,” according to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. There are no right-to-work states in the Northeast, but Maine has a long history of debate over the topic.

It might be easier to draw non-aviation businesses to the space, but because of grant assurances, any companies leasing property at the airport must be related to the aeronautic industry. Other businesses can move in temporarily — a yacht company rents some space for storage during the winter months, for example — but there is a “kick out clause,” meaning if an aircraft or drone-related business were to come in, it would be given priority and the other business might lose its lease.

There is also empty space in the form of the newer of the two air traffic control towers, Levesque said, adding that it would be ideal for a “special project company,” perhaps dealing in technology or cybersecurity. He’s trying to market the tower toward that purpose. Until then, the unheated tower remains vacant with insurance its only cost.

The airport is still attractive to many businesses trying to break into the Northeast market, Levesque said, noting the Brunswick location means pilots are within a one-hour flight from five major aviation hubs and closer to Europe.

“I’m working with a number of prospects for large aircraft maintenance,” he said. This week, he is going to the National Business Aviation Association trade show to promote the redevelopment authority and the airport.

The next project in the pipeline is an aviation technician school to assist the growing business in Brunswick, which, according to Levesque, should be totally operational by August 2019.

So far, there are roughly a dozen aeronautic or drone-based businesses at the airport, employing about 100 employees among them.

Since 2011 the airport has gone from being unused to seeing more than 20,000 take-offs and landings per year.

“We’ve seen double-digit growth,” since 2017, Levesque said, citing a 13 percent increase from this time last year.

The space has three large hangars that together cover around 400,000 square feet, as well as a smaller T-hangar. A smaller, 15,000-square-foot hangar is also in the works thanks to a $6.2 million grant from the FAA, a little more than half of which was dedicated to the hangar.

The newest of the hangars, number six, is large enough to hold six Boeing 737s, Levesque said, but houses about 20 smaller aircraft split among six companies that share it.

Among those tenants is American Classic Aviation, an airplane maintenance company, which also leases its aircraft to American Classic Flying Club, run by ACA owner David Keen. The club has been “off the ground” since March, using three Piper PA28-140 Cherokees among the roughly 17 club members. Of those members, about half a dozen are working on earning their private pilot certification.

Keen said he and his instructors want to reach out to more young people to get them interested in flying careers.

“There’s a pilot shortage,” he said, adding that within the next decade airlines are going to need to hire more than 15,000 pilots. They also want to attract more women to the field.

“It’s a growth industry,” he said.

John Favreau, left, and David Keen of American Classic Flying Club stand with a Cesna Cardinal 177. (Hannah LaClaire /The Times Record)

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