BRUNSWICK (AP) - The future of the Brunswick Naval Air Station might involve housing, industry and offices - even a botanical garden - instead of big airplanes lumbering off toward the Atlantic Ocean, officials say.
There will be short-term pain, said Brian Hamel, the one-time head of the Loring Development Authority, which redeveloped the former Loring Air Force Base in Limestone after it shut down in 1994. But in time, the Brunswick site has the potential to become a regional economic engine.
"The community can economically survive this closure," said Hamel, who runs Hamel Enterprises in Presque Isle. "If the community can look out five or 10 years, I think the community will be better off without the base."
The Base Realignment and Closure Commission voted 7-2 Wednesday to close Brunswick. There are ways the decision could be reversed, but residents see little chance of that happening.
David Vail, an economics professor at Bowdoin College, agrees there will be tough times in the early going when the Navy leaves. Area housing prices will probably come down, retail businesses will take a hit and school enrollments will drop.
But over time, new businesses will emerge, more people will move to the area, and much of the base land will move to the tax rolls.
"The short-run shock to everyone is enormous," Vail said. "But given time, this region is going to thrive economically."
The commission said one reason to close the base rather than just cut back its operations was to give local and state officials a chance to redevelop the site. The closing process is expected to begin in two or three years and last five or six.
Within hours of the commission vote, political leaders were doing their best to focus on opportunities - not dwell on lost jobs and the consequences of losing an annual payroll of $128 million.
Gov. John Baldacci signed a memorandum with Topsham and Brunswick officials vowing to collaborate on economic development of the site.
Sen. Olympia Snowe said she will introduce legislation this fall to force the government to give the land for free to a local development authority. She said she also will demand an environmental cleanup that meets the state's standards on the state's timetable.
Maine has redeveloped a number of former military bases.
Presque Isle Air Force Base, shut down in 1961, now is now home to the Northern Maine Regional Airport, the Northern Maine Community College and an industrial and business park with more than 40 companies.
Dow Air Force Base in Bangor closed in 1968 and is home to Bangor International Airport, an Air National Guard unit, a General Electric plant, offices, retailers and other businesses.
A little more than a decade after it closed, the former Loring Air Force Base is filled with businesses that employ about 1,450 workers. That's more than the 1,100 civilians who worked at the base before it closed.
Brunswick, commissioned in 1943, serves as the staging area for Navy P-3 Orion aircraft for maritime surveillance patrols and overseas deployment. Well before Wednesday, the town commissioned a study of what needed to be done to reuse the base should it be shut down. Completed in June, the study examined location, housing, roads, the water system and environmental issues.
While the report doesn't identify specific future uses of the site, it concludes that it's a great location with good infrastructure, a new runway, new hangar and new tower, and few physical constraints, such as wetlands.
"We knew it was important to hit the ground running and be out in front of the process," said Mathew Eddy, the town's economic development director.
Former military bases are put to a variety of uses, said Tim Ford, executive director of the Association of Defense Communities, which works with communities around closed bases. He said many successful redevelopment projects have houses, offices, industry, colleges, retail stores and medical centers.
One idea being bandied in Brunswick calls for developing botanical gardens and an arboretum on hundreds of acres of the base. Herschel Sternlieb, a Brunswick resident who is helping to organize the effort, said the gardens would be owned by the town and would attract tourists.
"Somebody was saying how about developing the base into a Vegas East or Disney World North," he said. "I don't think people come to Maine for those things. They come for nature, and this would fit in with that."
To succeed, town and development leaders must speak in one voice and have the same priorities, Hamel said.
While the redevelopment of Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire has been held up as a model, it also had problems because the two host communities, Newington and Portsmouth, disagreed about using Pease for flying.
Hamel, who once worked for the Pease Development Authority, said Portsmouth wanted to draw aviation companies to the property, while Newington wanted to prohibit them.
While the matter was in court, air cargo companies such as FedEx, UPS and Emery bypassed the site because of the uncertainty, Hamel said.
In Brunswick, residents need to be patient as the site is redeveloped, Ford said. "This is not a two- to three-year project, it's a 10-plus-year project," he said. "This is a going to be a long-term process."
On the Net:
Association of Defense Communities: http://www.defensecommunities.org/