State investment has jumpstarted Loring revitalization, officials say

10 months ago

LIMESTONE, Maine — Limestone’s former Air Force base is poised for a revitalization similar to that of the former Brunswick Naval Air Station.

With the $400,000 earmarked in the state’s supplemental budget for a new marketing campaign, Loring Development Authority hired Steve Levesque as a marketing consultant to work with potential investors. 

Levesque, the former executive director of the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, is well-versed in helping communities revamp military bases. Along with Levesque, the midcoast authority transformed Brunswick’s former naval air base, which closed in 2011, into a 3,200-acre business park, a shared manufacturing site with 35 businesses and an aviation complex that includes an authority-owned airport.

With Levesque’s expertise and state support, the former base in Limestone could be a major player in Maine’s economy.

When Loring Air Force Base closed in 1994, Loring Development Authority made it its mission to build a thriving commerce center. Large employers in manufacturing, customer service and food processing brought thousands of jobs to the 3,800-acre Loring Commerce Centre for the next two decades.

But those companies have left. Loring Development Authority’s loss of lease revenue led to a budget shortfall that left little room for marketing the base and bringing in new large employers. That changed last year when Gov. Janet Mills earmarked the money for the former base’s marketing campaign.

Since then, a start-up sustainable aviation fuel manufacturer and artificial intelligence research center have agreed to invest millions to build or renovate facilities and create hundreds of jobs. Private investors from Green 4 Maine LLC acquired 450 acres last year, aiming to turn their land into a hub for companies with national and local interests.

“For far too long Loring was not on the radar of investors looking to grow their businesses,” Mills said on Wednesday. “[Now] Loring is primed to welcome forward-thinking companies and the good paying jobs that accompany them.”

Loring’s problems began in 2013 when Maine Military Authority began laying off hundreds of employees after losing contracts for equipment maintenance and rebuilding with the National Guard Bureau. Those contracts were the core of Maine Military Authority’s work. At its peak, the company employed 500 people.

The company’s efforts to develop contracts for transit bus repairs proved unsuccessful. Maine Military Authority closed its doors in 2018. 

Maine Military Authority’s initial layoffs led to a more than $300,000 loss in lease revenue for Loring Development Authority. Other major businesses like Sitel’s call center and Hydroblend, a food processing center, closed in 2015 and 2019, respectively, bringing with them a combined 200 jobs and decreasing Loring revenue.

“There really was no marketing budget. All we could do was keep the lights on and the roads plowed,” said Denise Garland, deputy commissioner for Maine’s Department of Economic and Community Development. Garland has served on Loring Development Authority’s board of directors since 2020.

It was after Levesque came on board and revamped Loring’s web presence that DG Fuels chose Loring as one of two U.S. sites for a $4 billion sustainable aviation fuel facility. The vast open land for building, railroad and pipeline access and proximity to forest products were key selling points, Levesque noted.

“You have to show people what opportunities they have,” Levesque said. “You have to have a long-term view [for redevelopment] because it doesn’t happen overnight. It took six to eight years before we knew Brunswick would be in positive shape.”

Like in Brunswick, Loring will also need private investors to launch Aroostook into more modern, innovative industries, Levesque said. Green 4 Maine is a prime example.

Just months after acquiring land, the Maine-based investors signed on Eternal Mind, a Kennebunk company that plans to hire from 30 to 50 people and start Maine’s first AI research center at Loring. 

Eternal Minds plans to research quantum computing, a type of artificial intelligence that emulates aspects of human cognition and can assist in medical research. Officials expect to compete with the likes of Google and Microsoft on quantum computing breakthroughs.

No other companies have signed on yet, but Levesque said that there has been interest in potential aerospace and aviation companies. Levesque has been part of conversations with the new Maine Space Corporation, which wants Loring to become a launch and manufacturing site for satellites and small rockets.

Levesque is also helping Loring officials develop a master plan for their airport, which could open up opportunities for cargo flights and horizontal rocket test launches on the runway, much like the one that Brunswick-based blushift Aerospace did in 2021.

People need to know about places like Brunswick and Loring for those places to redevelop, Levesque said. 

“All of these things happening are building blocks,” Levesque said. “I perceive Loring as being more important to these industries than southern Maine because we have such a vast region to work with.”