These small business owners are growing the former Loring Air Force Base

10 months ago

LIMESTONE, Maine — It’s been at least 25 years since anyone occupied Loring Air Force Base’s former gas station and service center at 232 Development Drive.

But on July 1, local residents Chris King, Dan Berentes and siblings Chelsey and Artie Rossignol opened Runway Auto & Small Engine. Just down the road, at 191 Development Drive, Ryan Lemire of Limestone has set up his drone footage business and a new arts and media community center.

Their businesses are the first two local operations that have occupied buildings at the former Loring Air Force Base since new owners came on to revitalize the base as an industrial, commercial and community hub.

Ryan Lemire discusses the new Green 4 Maine Creative Arts & Digital Media Center in the lobby of what used to be Loring Applied Technology Center. (Melissa Lizotte | Aroostook Republican)

In February, Green 4 Maine LLC purchased 450 acres, including 49 buildings, on the 3,800-acre Loring Commerce Centre. Green 4 Maine comes at a time when Loring has seen major employers leave and not be replaced. 

While large industry, including a new artificial intelligence research center, remains a priority, Green 4 Maine leaders say that also attracting small businesses will help create a more vibrant and sustainable community.

“When people see that there’s more activity going on, they’re more likely to come here,” said Scott Hinkel, president of Green 4 Maine. 

King said he first showed interest in possibly starting a repair shop at 232 Development Drive around a decade ago. But visits inside the building with the Loring Development Authority never panned out.

At that time, there were still large employers on the base, including Sitel’s customer service call center, the Hydroblend food processing center and Maine Military Authority’s equipment repair facility. Between them, those three companies employed more than 700 people.

Chris King repairs a lawn mower at Runway Auto & Small Engine. (Melissa Lizotte | Aroostook Republican)

It seemed to King that Loring officials were more focused on replacing larger companies rather than filling vacant buildings with more local businesses. That’s why he and his business partners jumped on the chance to sign a nine-year lease with Green 4 Maine.

“I called [Green 4 Maine] and within an hour I was looking at the place,” King said. “They’re very eager to have local businesses come in. It’s a huge step in the right direction.”

In previous decades, Loring Development Authority, established after the base closed in 1994, focused more on attracting larger industries and then small businesses that could form around them, said Carl Flora, the authority’s president and CEO.

For instance, Maine Military Authority was one of Loring’s largest employers, with more than 500 at its peak in the mid-2000s. After laying off hundreds of employees due to the loss of major contracts, a nearby deli lost customers and shuttered around that same time, Flora said.

“We’ve always focused on creating new jobs for people in Maine. The last thing we wanted was another type of business that already existed somewhere in the region,” Flora said.

Green 4 Maine and business owners like King are hoping that the presence of any new business will encourage more employers, large and small.

Though Runway Auto is still new, King and his partners have seen business pick up slowly since opening. They’ve repainted the building’s interior and, with financial help from Green 4 Maine, will give the outside a fresh coat of paint, install new bay doors and replace the leaking roof.

Once that’s done, Runway Auto will have a new American flag, snowmobile and ATV-themed mural, courtesy of Lemire.

Lemire started Elevate Audio & Visual in 2019. He uses drone footage to create videos and photo packages for real estate companies, weddings and other events. On Green 4 Maine’s campus, he now has his first commercial office space, including a makeshift studio for recording music and podcasts.

But he didn’t stop there. After touring the 42,000-square-foot building, formerly the Loring Applied Technology Center, Lemire realized that his portion could become a haven for local artists to showcase and sell their work and interact with art enthusiasts.

Since opening in June, the Green 4 Maine Creative Arts & Digital Center has offered free video production and audio engineering classes, paint nights, art therapy sessions with Recovery Aroostook and open mic nights. The most popular event, a hip-hop showcase and open mic, attracted 40 people, including nearby Job Corps students.

Lemire wants to turn the media center into a nonprofit and create workshop spaces that individual artists can reserve. He has signed a 9-year-lease on his portion of the building. S.W. Collins Company utilizes the rest of the building. 

Ryan Lemire, owner of Elevate Audio & Visual, looks at artwork by Aroostook native Zachary Pryor at the new Green 4 Maine Creative Arts & Digital Media Center. (Melissa Lizotte | Aroostook Republican)

From the start, Green 4 Maine has supported his combination of art-based business and community service, Lemire said.

“I want to be here long term. [This space] might not be a huge thing but it’s a start. It’s something that could bring people here,” Lemire said. “You can’t build back this place without people or a space for the arts.”

With new local tenants, things are starting to look up at Loring, Hinkel said. A local food truck, Fork in the Road, recently signed a nine-year lease to serve lunch at 14 Connecticut Road at least once a week. People have begun looking at the former Sitel building as possible retail or food business space. 

Though no other lease contracts have been signed, he said that Green 4 Maine is continuing conversations with local investors while looking at opportunities for new aerospace, aviation and industrial ventures. The local businesses are already helping to generate interest, Hinkel said.

“We’ve started to see people who are saying, ‘You know, I forgot this was here. Let’s check it out,'” Hinkel said. “Once people saw that there was new development, they wanted to see what’s here.”