Presque Isle City Manager Tom Stevens sat in his office Friday and looked over at the wall where he still keeps a yellow “Save Loring” button.

Ten years after the devastating closure of the Air Force base in Limestone, Stevens keeps the button as a reminder of both the good days and the terribly bad ones that followed the loss of 10,000 jobs in one of Maine’s poorest and most remote regions.

“Given our location and the $70 million payroll from Loring, closing the base changed many people’s lives forever,” said Stevens, who was a young town manager in Limestone when the military shipped out in 1994.

“It changed the dynamics and makeup of the communities immediately surrounding Loring Air Force Base,” he said, “and had a significant impact on schools, retail trade and housing. The future was very bleak.”

Like so many other people on Friday, Stevens was stunned that the Pentagon wanted to eliminate the military accounting center that helped spur the successful redevelopment of the base property and blunted the severe economic impact on the region.

Two of Presque Isle’s city councilors work for the accounting center, an indication that the job losses will be felt throughout the county.

The Pentagon included it on the closure list released Friday, but erroneously said the center employs 241 employees when it actually has a work force of 362 – one-third of the jobs on the redeveloped base.

“We’re considering every angle” to explain the proposed closure, said Carl Flora, president and chief executive officer of the Loring Redevelopment Authority.

Flora said Friday from his office on the former base that the decision to cut the Limestone operation, which has won “award after award” from the Pentagon for efficiency, “suggests there’s some bigger scheme we don’t understand.”

“We view this as a major step backwards in a long and arduous march forward,” Flora said, adding, “This is unbelievable.”

Times have changed

Yet it was the news that Brunswick Naval Air Station and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery were targeted for closure or realignment, putting more than 6,000 jobs at risk, that brought back the bad memories.

“I think the Loring closure had a major economic impact to the state, and while you can talk about the success of the redevelopment of the base, it never has replaced the economic impact that the Air Force base had,” said former Caribou City Manager Terry St. Peter, who worked with federal and state lawmakers in the late 1970s to save Loring the first time it was targeted for closure.

St. Peter, now city manager of Belfast, recalled Friday that former U.S. Sens. George Mitchell, William Cohen and Edmund Muskie were pivotal in saving the base in 1980.

It also didn’t hurt that President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, was running for re-election in 1980, St. Peter said.

The politicians were joined by legions of business owners, school leaders and municipal officials from throughout Aroostook County and Maine who helped persuade the Department of Defense to reverse its decision.

At that time, St. Peter said, there was no base closure commission, and Congress had far more influence in deciding which military bases to close.

Fifteen years later, the Base Closure and Realignment Commission targeted Loring and an intense second effort to save the base failed.

“The effort to save Loring in the 1970s worked for two reasons,” St. Peter said. “The Save Loring Committee provided excellent data on the economic and military reasons to keep Loring – we were still in the Cold War – and we had a strong congressional delegation, working together, with close ties to the president.”

St. Peter was reluctant to offer advice to Brunswick and Kittery officials now facing what he confronted twice, “but I think the times and conditions have changed significantly since the 1970s so that it is probably better to start talking about alternative uses for those facilities.”

Liz Chapman has been a newspaper reporter and editor covering Maine news for the past 11 years.

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