Former Maine air base’s future hinges on a historic, crumbling hangar

2 months ago

LIMESTONE, Maine — When Matt Cole and Cuppy Johndro look at the historic arch hangar on the former Loring Air Force Base, they see a lost chance to link the region’s past and its potential future.

Cole and Johndro are members of the Loring Air Museum, which has operated since 2005 on land owned by Loring Development Authority, a state-funded economic development group created over 30 years ago to revitalize the Air Force base.

Museum volunteers and Loring officials have been at odds over whether to preserve the deteriorating arch hangar for tourism or for economic development. Lawmakers rejected a bill that would have turned over the hangar to the museum, a move that Loring officials said was crucial for preserving the airport for future economic opportunities.

The hopes are as high as ever at the base. The Portland-based Green 4 Maine purchased 450 acres last year, hoping to turn the area into a workforce hub with thousands of jobs and 750 apartments. That came after a startup announced plans to build a $4.4 billion sustainable jet fuel company there.

But after seeing lots of companies leave Loring without being replaced, many locals are skeptical that anything major will happen, including those who want to preserve the 75-year-old hangar that is now falling apart.

“I personally am not hopeful,” said Johndro, who worked as an X-ray technician at the former Loring Air Force Base. “It’s been 30 years but not much has come in.”

Since the base’s closure in 1994, Loring’s famous “arch hangar,” one of only two arch-style military airport hangars in the U.S., has towered over the former airport runway at 340 feet wide by 314 feet long. The hangar once housed B-36 bomber aircraft and stored nuclear arsenal materials at the height of the Cold War.

A black-and-white photo shows the construction of Loring Air Force Base’s “Arch Hangar” in 1948. (Courtesy of Cuppy Johndro)

Designed by the Chicago-based Roberts and Schaefer Company, the structure is considered an engineering “marvel.” During its construction, which lasted from 1947 to 1949, workers continuously poured cement for 26 hours into 12 individual concrete sections of roof that form the signature arch shape.

But it has been 20 years since the hangar received major structural upgrades. Starting in late 2023, the latex roof started tearing across the top, sliding down the arch and allowing snow to soak through the insulated core and into the concrete ceiling.

Cole and fellow volunteers have long feared something like this would happen. In 2015, they decided to pursue designating the arch hangar as a national historic landmark, qualifying the building for restoration grants.

It had been five years since the new owners of Telford Aviation sold the company and stopped using the hangar for disassembling and reusing former aircraft parts. Museum leaders hoped that another company would make the arch hangar its permanent home and held off on their preservation plans.

Instead, the hangar has remained vacant. That inspired Loring Air Museum and Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, to propose a bill that would have given the hangar to the museum. The museum’s board had hoped to display military aircraft inside and relocate their current museum exhibits to draw in more tourists.

Thousands of Air Force veterans and families have visited Loring and gone on volunteer-led tours through the arch hangar since the museum opened. The arch hangar alone attracts 5,000 to 6,000 snowmobile riders annually, said Steve Dobson, a board member of the Maine Tourism Association, which endorsed the measure.

But a legislative committee opposed it in late January, meaning the bill is unlikely to be approved by the full Legislature. That brings more uncertainty to when and how the arch hangar might get refurbished.

Before Telford left, Loring invested more than $2.5 million to replace the arch hangar’s roof and make other upgrades from 2002 to 2004, said Jonathan Judkins, the authority’s new interim CEO. As large companies left Loring in the mid 2000s, the authority faced budget shortfalls and had fewer state funds to repair buildings and roads

A mid-January 2024 photo shows the former Loring Air Force Base’s arch hangar losing its protective core, which is sliding down and allowing snow and water to soak into the building. (Courtesy of Cuppy Johndro)

Last year, the sale of 450 acres to Portland-based Green 4 Maine, the terms of which Judkins did not disclose, reduced the authority’s short- and long-term debts by $2.1 million and gave officials new hope for economic development.

The authority is working on a new master plan that, if approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, could switch the airport’s designation from a private airfield to a public airport. Due in June, the plan will include reasons why FAA-funded upgrades could attract businesses. The U.S. Defense Department gave the authority $750,000 to fund the master plan, Judkins said in recent legislative testimony.

If Loring Air Museum owned the arch hangar, they said, that could violate a purchase and sales agreement that allows Green 4 Maine to possibly own the airport if the master plan falls through within five years after FAA approval, Judkins said.

Portland-based HyperSpace Propulsion CEO Richard Lugg also told legislators that his company wants to set up a production facility for a low-orbit “spaceplane” at the arch hangar. If the authority still owns the airport, they would lease the hangar to Green 4 Maine, who would sublease the building to HyperSpace, Judkins noted.

“It would be sad to waste this incredible economic asset,” Judkins said of the hangar.

Loring Development Authority has asked a contractor to inspect the hangar’s roof and provide an estimated cost, which will be detailed in the airport master plan, Judkins said. The authority also wants to install a new heating system inside the hangar.

With a master plan, the authority would be eligible for the FAA funds in 2025. They would then create a 5-year capital improvement plan. But that seems like an awfully long time to wait, Cole said, especially for locals who have not seen Loring redevelop at the rate of other former military bases.

“If we could get the [historic building] designation, we could be searching for grants as soon as this summer, not five to 10 years from now,” Cole said. “If this [hangar] is such an asset, why wasn’t it fixed years ago? Every day, it’s getting worse.”