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Customs and Border Patrol in talks to build new facility in Old Town

U.S. Customs and Border Protection is in early talks with Old Town officials about relocating its air and marine division from Houlton to the city’s airport.

The federal agency has propositioned the city to potentially house its Air and Marine Operations Unit, which is currently based in Houlton with the rest of CBP operations, but negotiations are in the preliminary stages, Airport Manager Lance Farrar said.

That move, however, came as somewhat of a surprise to Houlton Town Manager Bill MacDonald, who stated Thursday that while he was aware CBP had previously expressed interest in relocating the base, it was the first he had heard of any requests for proposals in central Maine.

“The impact to our area would be significant,” MacDonald said. “We greatly appreciate having Air and Marine Operations here.”

Old Town has proposed a 15-year lease at $5,500 a month. In exchange, the city would foot the bill and build CBP a 70-foot by 70-foot hangar and a command center. Construction of the new facility would cost about $1.3 million, City Manager Bill Mayo said. Once a contract is finalized, CBP will return to the city council to discuss funding options and for approval, likely sometime in July.

CBP currently has a private lease with Terry Beals at Houlton International Airport for a 70-foot by 70-foot building.

“We are certainly open to a dialogue if additional space is needed at the airport,” MacDonald said. “Our goal is for them to stay here because it would be a significant impact to this area and our eastern and northern borders.”

But according to an agenda for an Old Town Finance Committee June 21 meeting agenda, “As we understand the project, CBP intends to relocate their operations to a centralized airport in Maine. We feel strongly that DeWitt Field, Old Town Municipal Airport meets the needs of CBP for numerous reasons.”

John Priddy, director of Northern Border Operations for CBP, said Tuesday the federal agency has long been considering moving its aviation division away from the Canadian border, enhancing its accessibility to Maine’s western and southern borders. The greater Bangor area is its sought-after location, though Old Town is not yet a done deal. The CBP’s sector headquarters would remain in Houlton, he said.

“By centrally locating it, it permits a bit better access to the border in the Rangeley area and to investigative agencies down into southern Maine, even down to Boston,” Priddy said.

MacDonald disputes those claims however, stating that while CBP would be closer to Rangely and the western Maine border, the distance it would then be from the eastern and northern borders would be far greater.   

Using Old Town as the base of operations, CBP would be 60 miles closer to the Rangeley area, but would then be 91 miles farther away from Houlton, MacDonald said.

Houlton Town Council Chairman Bill McCluskey added that if the town lost the services of the helicopter, it stands to lose revenue as well.

“Obviously, Houlton International sells this aircraft quite alot of fuel,” he said. “It would be a tremendous loss of fuel revenue for the airport and loss of a tenant for a taxpaying, long established business there as well.”

McCluskey said the town wrote letters of concern to U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin regarding this proposed move back in 2016. The town received a reply stating that a threat assessment would need to be done before any operations would be moved.

“To my knowledge this (assessment) has not happened,” he said.

Old Town responded to CBP after the agency began soliciting offers in April, Farrar said. Department of Homeland Security Contracting Officer Monica Hughes wrote in a March listing that the CBP and the Air and Marine Operations were looking for a new aircraft hangar and were considering the Bangor International Airport and the adjacent Air National Guard base, DeWitt Field, or Hancock International Airport in Bar Harbor as possible locations. Old Town was the only municipality to submit a bid, according to officials from other municipalities of interest.

The proposal requires a 7,300-square-foot facility, according to the listing. In addition to the hangar and office space, it would include an exercise room, locker rooms, and weapons and ammunition storage, according to an April 10 email Hughes sent to the city’s economic development director.

The U.S. Border Patrol was established in Maine in the early 1920s. Today, the Houlton Border Patrol Sector operates stations in Calais, Fort Fairfield, Jackman, Rangeley, Van Buren and its headquarters in Houlton, according to its website.

Since the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, “there was a large Congressional push to staff the borders,” Priddy said. “We’ve staffed these northern border branches pretty heavily, and over the last several years, we just have not utilized them, or more accurately, the need has been on the southern border for those resources.”

Consequently, CBP aviation staff in Maine has been pruned in recent years. Relocating the division further south will allow the remaining handful of employees to better work with other local, state, tribal and federal agencies, Priddy said.

Both MacDonald and McCluskey said they felt CBP already had a strong working relationship with local and state law enforcement agencies.

“With the operations (ICE, Border Patrol etc.) headquarters here in Houlton, coupled with the high level of cooperation between local, county and state law enforcement, my personal opinion is that the best place and use of this aircraft is here in Houlton,” McCluskey said. “Additionally, the jail is here. Houlton’s runway is about 1,100 feet longer than Old Town’s so, if needed, larger aircraft may be able to land here where in Old Town they may have to land in Bangor.”

McCluskey added that the unnecessary cost to taxpayers did not make financial sense.

“Unless a specific threat has been identified that necessitates this move, it seems like an expensive enterprise for the American taxpayers,” he said. “The council, in conjunction with the town manager and Mr. Beals, will be doing everything we can to keep the aircraft here in Houlton. We will be reaching out to our senators to seek their help to keep this vital resource for our border safety here in Houlton.”

Houlton Pioneer Times reporter Joseph Cyr contributed to this article.

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