BRUNSWICK – Every few minutes, planes fly over Robert Taylor’s boyhood home.

The decades-old, propeller-driven P-3 Orions – Brunswick Naval Air Station’s signature aircraft – rumble above as they turn to land at the nearby base. They’ve been doing so since Taylor, 48, was a kid.

“The base won’t close,” Taylor said confidently. “We’ve gone through this four times. The same thing always happens. It’s like the-boy-who-cried-wolf syndrome.”

Folks get nervous. Politicians pull strings. Nothing changes.

It’s a popular sentiment here. Yet, a growing number of local experts – those fighting to protect the base from the Pentagon’s dreaded closure list – say this time the naval air station’s fate may be more precarious than ever.

“It’s really scary,” said Richard Tetrev, who is leading the NAS Brunswick Task Force. “It’s not being done the way it was before.”

Last time, the process included people at every level of the military. This time the process is happening almost entirely in secret, within the mahogany-paneled offices of U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his top aides.

When the Pentagon closure list is released – currently scheduled for Friday, May 13 – its contents are likely to be a surprise to nearly everyone.

“Nobody knows what’s on it,” Tetrev said. “Nothing’s coming out of there.”

Meanwhile, there’s a frightening level of apathy around Brunswick and nearby towns, Tetrev said. Too many people fail to realize the seriousness of the base’s plight.

Nor do they grasp how different the town might be if the base were closed.

Invisible population

The numbers portray a huge community.

In all, more than 16,000 people in the local area have ties to the base.

Among them are 4,000 active-duty men and women and about 700 civilians, all of whom work there. Added to that population is an estimated 5,700 military dependents and another 5,700 U.S. Navy retirees and their families.

In the Brunswick school system, more than one in every six students are the children of Navy personnel.

Yet, it’s a largely invisible population.

One rarely sees Navy uniforms on the streets or in the stores. Typically, the only clues are out-of-state license plates or faraway accents.

Yet, the thousands here do important work.

P-3 Orions, once tasked with tracking Soviet submarines, have been filled with state-of-the-art reconnaissance equipment.

In the Caribbean, the planes help locate drug smugglers. In Bosnia, they helped stop smugglers from taking weapons into the war-torn region. And over the Iraqi desert, the Brunswick-based planes have been used to track enemy troops, guiding ground forces from the air.

Local supporters worry that the Pentagon may want to consolidate the planes in one location.

The Pentagon could reassign the squadrons and close Brunswick, said Tetrev, who has spent more than a year on the issue.

The Maine Legislature has allocated $75,000 for the fight to keep it open. Much of that money has been spent on publishing a 27-page report on the base and its value. It has also paid for several trips to Washington, where Tetrev has met with Maine’s congressional delegation and researched documents in an archive of past base closure rounds, held in 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995.

“I have a sense that we have done everything we can possibly do,” he said.

A former second-in-command at the base – he retired in 1997 – Tetrev believes the base will survive if it can find a champion among decision-makers, perhaps resting on the base’s value as the last active-duty airfield in the Northeast.

“All it takes is one person to convince,” Tetrev said.

Without such a champion, however, the base may be doomed, he said.

Concern, not worry

At Fat Boy’s Restaurant, just outside the base’s main gate, co-owner Jean Burton reads the newspaper stories about Brunswick and the Pentagon-driven closures.

She’s concerned, though not worried.

“There’s always been this threat,” said Burton, who grew up in Brunswick. “I don’t think the Navy would close the base. There’s a lot going on over there.”

Her restaurant, a 1950s-style joint where waitresses come to the car and hang trays from the windows, is located just a few hundred yards from the base’s twin runways.

Burton has seen some of the world’s biggest planes land there. She’s also seen Air Force One and has watched as planes returned from Iraq.

Meanwhile, her restaurant has become a kind of touchstone for the local military. Inside, pictures of uniformed fliers cover the walls. There is a large image of the Navy’s famous flight team, the Blue Angels, and the insignia of Brunswick’s P-3 squadrons.

From her vantage, Burton watched the Navy build a new $30 million hangar on the base. That, too, is a sign it will stay open, she said.

“They have spent a lot of money out there,” she said. “I can’t believe they are spending that much to shut it down,” she said.

And if it closes?

“I don’t think that will happen,” she said. “We’d survive.”

Follow the money

Survive, yes. Thrive, maybe not, Bath businessman Joseph Byrnes said. A retired master chief in the Navy, he cited an old local story.

As it goes, the base and town didn’t get along in the 1950s. Townsfolk didn’t like all the young servicemen causing a ruckus and the base leaders felt unappreciated.

So, the commanding officer came up with his own solution one payday. In those days, a paymaster gave the servicemen their salaries in cash. The commander ordered every serviceman to be paid in $2 bills.

As if they were marked in red ink, the bills circulated through the local economy and continued to do so for years.

“Those bills were popping up forever,” said Byrnes, who is now general manager of the Bath Holiday Inn. More importantly, it showed the town where the base’s money went: in the town’s pockets.

The financial impact is still tough to ignore.

According to the Navy’s own estimates, the Brunswick base pays about $147 million in annual salaries, spends $34 million in health care at local agencies and buys about $62 million in additional goods and services from the region.

‘They want to play’

In all, an estimated $333 million circulates through Maine’s economy because of the Brunswick base.

Byrnes believes some of the widest impacts will be among local chain restaurants and stores, such as Wal-Mart and Applebee’s.

A closed base would also be felt at such locally owned businesses as Tri-Sports Inc., a company that sells motorcycles in Topsham. Manager Gary Lawler says he gets daily business from the base. Purchases go up especially following months of duty overseas.

“They get home and they want to play,” said Lawler, whose motorcycles run from $2,000 to $13,000 and up.

At Johnson’s Sporting Goods in Brunswick, about 20 percent of the business – hunting and fishing supplies, paint ball equipment and scuba gear – comes from people at the base, said business co-owner Jennifer Ouellette.

“Maybe I should be nervous about the base closing, but I’m not,” Ouellette said. Likewise, Lawler said he isn’t worried.

If the base closes, private companies – such as Southwest Airlines or United Parcel Service – will swoop in, he said.

“That’s the rumor,” Lawler said. “This area will always do well.”

‘A different way of life’

Many longtime residents are kidding themselves, said Jerry Hinton, Brunswick’s police chief.

“I’ve seen what can happen,” said Hinton, who moved here 15 years ago. “I’ve seen the shock on people’s faces.”

In the late 1980s, Hinton worked as the chief of detectives for the police department in Portsmouth, N.H. Just a few miles away sat Pease Air Force Base.

In December 1988, Pease was among 86 bases targeted by the first Base Realignment and Closure Commission.

It became the first major installation to shut down.

Before the list came out, no one believed Pease would close, Hinton said. Everyone talked of its importance to the country. And it had been there so long.

Quite simply, no one could imagine the town without the base, he said.

“I hope Brunswick (Naval Air Station) stays open,” Hinton said. “If it does close, though, it’s going to be a different way of life.”

When Pease was shut down, his department was forced to cut $1 million from its budget and the value of his home plummeted.

He still owns the house in Portsmouth. It took 10 years for its value to bounce back, he said.

If Brunswick closes, Hinton believes the effects will be similar.

“It’s going to be, ‘Cinch the belt,'” he said.

Professionally, he’d probably have to lay off some of his officers. He’d likely be forced to weather some portion of the cuts contemplated when the Palesky tax referendum was analyzed.

“You’ve got to look people in the eye and say, ‘Your job is done,'” he said.

And privately, he’d watch the “for sale” signs go up in his Brunswick neighborhood.

“You can see the military in every fourth or fifth household,” he said.

About one-quarter of all personnel at the base live on Navy property in 750 homes, duplexes and single-family units of which most are less than five years old. The rest either rent or own homes nearby.

The effect on the housing market could be huge, Hinton said.

“It’s a very anxious time for those of us who’ve seen what happened before,” Hinton said.

It would be felt more in this essentially rural area.

“This is the State of Maine,” he said. “You could feel the Earth move.”


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