Neil Haines, facilities administration manger for the Loring Development Authority, looks out at the empty tarmac at the former Loring Air Force Base in Limestone on Aug. 2, 2005. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

The Loring Air Force Base led the population of the Aroostook County town of Limestone to quintuple between 1950 and 1960. After it closed in 1994, it saw an even bigger bust.

The base made the town of around 1,500 people a half-hour north of Presque Isle a linchpin of American Cold War strategy. It is now one of the cheapest places to live in New England and looking to attract newcomers with promises of welcome packets and new-resident orientations.

As homes across Maine see skyrocketing prices and short inventory, they have remained both cheap and abundant in Limestone. A three-bedroom home with two bathrooms on 11 acres recently sold for just $150,000. That would pay for less than one-third of the median home in Portland, according to Zillow data.

Many come to the area seeking a slower pace as well as winter recreation, Limestone Selectman Chris Durepo said, adding that he hoped the rock-bottom prices could be an opportunity for the town during a housing crisis.

“The highest home on the market right now is $200,000,” said Durepo, who also rebuilds houses with his general contracting company. “So that puts in perspective what the housing market is here.”

There were 11 homes sold in Limestone from January to April 2021, according to data collected by Stephanie Beaulieu of Fields Realty in Fort Fairfield. The selling price hovered around $59,000, a number Beaulieu said had gone down this year.

Residents moving into Maine from out of state can arouse suspicion or disdain from longtime residents. But the town welcomes newcomers, Durepo said. The Limestone Chamber of Commerce creates welcome packets for them and has scheduled a meet-and-greet for new residents next month as part of an energetic events schedule.

The decommissioned base still dominates the town. The military put it there and in nearby Caswell because the region was just about the closest place on the U.S. mainland to Europe, which was something of strategic significance during the Cold War. The town got a visit from President Richard Nixon on his way back from the Soviet Union in 1974, in one of his last public appearances before resigning that year due to the Watergate scandal.

Once a small agricultural settlement, the population peaked at 13,000 in 1960 after the base opened and fell to about 10,000 around 1990. With the end of the Cold War, the Air Force decommissioned the base in 1994, turning it into an industrial and aviation park.

Limestone had the highest rate of population loss from 2010 to 2020 of any community in Maine with 1,000 people or more, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, declining from 2,300 people to just 1,500. Population loss since the base closed is more stark at 8,400 since 1990.

Losing Loring was “devastating” for Limestone and Aroostook County, Durepo said. Numerous residents had jobs connected to the base or relied on business from the thousands of people stationed there.

Figuring out a way to bring significant new development to Loring, which has since been transformed into the Loring Commerce Centre, has been more difficult, Durepo noted, though he remained optimistic about the town’s future.

The center serves businesses that use 1 million square feet of lease space and employ 750 people, administrators noted in a 2021 report. It was the site of a historic commercial rocket launch from Brunswick-based bluShift Aerospace last year, but the company is now seeking coastal areas for future launches.

While many people have left Limestone, there are new ones coming in. Around 4 percent of Limestone residents had moved from a different state within the past year, according to 2020 U.S. Census Bureau data from the American Community Survey. Another 5 percent had moved in from outside of Aroostook, one of the highest rates for any community in Maine.

Durepo acknowledged setbacks in recent years but said the town recently had several new developments, including solar projects that added millions to its tax base as well as local farmers building new irrigation systems and potato houses.

It has also received nationwide recognition for being home to the Maine School of Science and Mathematics, a boarding school considered one of the best magnet schools in the country.

“I live, breathe, eat, sleep Limestone,” Durepo said. “We like being here, we like raising our family. It’s a safe place.”