Bangor Daily News

LIMESTONE, Maine — The way Jonathan Judkins sees it, the former Loring Air Force Base should be the epicenter of modern industry in Maine’s largest geographical county.

Judkins recently became interim president and CEO of the Loring Development Authority, the state-funded economic development entity that has been working to redevelop the former base in Aroostook County for more than 30 years with varying degrees of success.

“There’s no reason why Loring shouldn’t be among the largest, world-class industrial and business parks in Maine,” said Judkins, who assumed his position Jan. 1, replacing longtime president Carl Flora, who retired.

The change in leadership of the LDA, which will soon include new members joining its board of directors, comes at a pivotal time for Loring.

New developers recently purchased part of the former base with a goal of attracting billions of dollars in investment and hundreds of jobs from space and artificial intelligence businesses. Their interests clash with leaders of a long-established Loring museum who want to preserve what they see as a historic monument in a huge former hangar. Who gets the hangar — the developers or the museum — will influence Loring’s direction going forward.

The recent discovery of more chemical contamination on the former base — Loring has been a federal Superfund site since 1990 — and a sense of uncertainty about the LDA’s role going forward are two more factors complicating Judkins’ job.

Redeveloping Loring has been a complicated undertaking from day one.

The Maine Legislature created the Loring Development Authority in 1993, one year before the base closed. The closure led to a massive population exodus and job losses for area communities. In the two decades following, the aptly named Loring Commerce Center largely became the headquarters of companies focused on military-contracted manufacturing, employing 1,600 at its peak in the mid 2000s. But once government contracts dried up, most businesses left, once again leaving an economic void.

At its peak in the mid 2000s, two of the earliest Loring companies — Defense Finance and Accounting Service and Maine Military Authority — employed around 600 and 500 people, respectively, with Sitel following at around 200. Today, Defense Finance and Accounting Service remains the largest employer, still at 600, but Maine Military Authority and Sitel have since closed without being replaced.

Fewer jobs meant less revenue from tenants’ lease payments and the Loring Job Increment Financing Fund, which returns to the authority half the state income tax from jobs created at Loring. State law dictates Loring must use Job Increment Financing funds to maintain roads and buildings and pay for water, sewer, police, fire and ambulance services.

The authority received $600,000 in 2022 and $540,000 in 2021 from the jobs fund, compared to $1 million during the years that Maine Military Authority was on campus, Flora said. Judkins is advocating for LD 1981, a bill that would increase the authority’s Job Increment fund from 50 percent to 100 percent of income tax withholdings.

Loring officials think that now is the time to act if the base is going to see a return of major industry. In 2023, the authority sold 450 acres to Green 4 Maine, Portland-based private investors who have already signed on companies within artificial intelligence and space manufacturing and brought in local businesses.

The LDA is banking on Green 4 Maine to be the entity that finally turns things around.

Based on an agreement with the LDA, Green 4 Maine can propose purchasing more Loring land if it creates at least 75 full-time jobs and attracts businesses to vacant buildings. If successful, Green 4 Maine could become Loring’s main economic developer, said Jeremy Fischer, chairperson of the LDA’s board of directors.

“If Green 4 Maine owns most of Loring one day, they would be the economic development organization and the authority would be more like a municipality that takes care of public infrastructure,” Fischer said.

This leaves Judkins in a tenuous position.

When former authority president Flora retired Dec. 31, Loring’s board opted to replace him with an interim while they see how Green 4 Maine’s plans develop, Fischer said. The board will begin searching for a permanent CEO once they have a better sense of what that person’s new role might become.

“We might have a typical CEO, an economic development director or someone focused on infrastructure,” Fischer said.

The LDA will also see the first major restructuring of its board of directors since 2021. The governor must appoint 13 members, according to state law, and no less than seven must be from Aroostook County. Fischer lives in Yarmouth and is one of five board members whom Gov. Janet Mills will need to replace this year.

Board members Suzie Paradis, Fort Kent’s town manager; Ben Shaw, Chief Operating Officer for Thompson Financial Group in Presque Isle; Lee Umphrey, president and CEO of Eastern Maine Development Corporation; and Fischer saw their terms expire last fall but all four have been serving on the board until Mills can appoint new members this legislative session, said Ben Goodman, a spokesperson for the governor.

A fifth board member, Galen Weibley, Presque Isle’s former director of economic and community development, has resigned after taking another job in Kennebunkport. Mills will also be appointing his replacement this year.

Mills appointed Fischer, Umphrey, Paradis and Shaw in 2021 to “take a fresh look” at Loring’s finances, given recent budget shortfalls, Fischer said.

The LDA had a budget shortfall of $547,826 in fiscal year 2022, which was an improvement from the shortfall of $1.3 million it experienced in 2021, according to the 2022 LDA annual report.

The LDA’s finances are small compared to the numbers being touted by one new startup company that wants to bring business and jobs to Loring.

Washington D.C.-based DG Fuels announced plans in 2022  to construct a $4 billion sustainable aviation fuel production facility. DG Fuels is not on Green 4 Maine-owned land but could be in the future. The two are already planning to house construction workers at Loring.

Despite the economic potential of the DG Fuels plan, Green 4 Maine and Loring officials have faced pushback. This month, Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash and Loring Air Museum volunteers spoke in favor of LD 1998, a bill that would transfer ownership of Loring’s famous “arch hangar” to the museum.

Portland-based HyperSpace Propulsion wants to renovate the hangar t o assemble a low-orbit “spaceplane” and then test it on Loring’s airport runways. But others doubt that, after 30 years of closure, Loring can be a long-term hub for the aviation and aerospace industries.

“The base has been closed for 30 years and the hangar was only reused for six years,” said Matt Cole, vice president of the Loring Air Museum.

All of these issues and competing interests are now on Judkins’ plate.

Judkins came on in July, 2023 as the authority’s finance and accounting director, a position he will maintain until hiring another staff member. He did not disclose Green 4 Maine’s purchase price but the sale helped Loring reduce its short- and long-term debts by $2.1 million, according to minutes from the authority’s Oct. 11, 2023 board meeting.

A Caribou native, Judkins said his major goal as Loring’s interim leader is to help Green 4 Maine and the development authority continue to attract permanent business.

“Technology is one of my personal passions. It is the only way forward into the future,” Judkins said. “The first ones that come to mind are sustainable electric vehicles and aircraft and AI-based computer software.”

Judkins will also be dealing with the fallout of recent PFAS discoveries throughout the base, including near DG Fuels’ planned location.

The Environmental Protection Agency has used federal superfund monies to remove low-level radioactive waste and clean and remove contaminated soil, sediment and groundwater. The Air Force’s investigations have found a PFAS known as Aqueous Film Forming Foams, or AFFF, the Air Force once used to put out fires from plane crashes.

Judkins said that the authority will comply with any future cleanups of PFAS and he does not expect that to deter potential investors.

“Any company dealing with aviation or aerospace knows that PFAS will be an issue [on former military bases] and are building that into their business plans,” Judkins said.

Even with potential setbacks, Judkins still sees untapped potential in Loring, which is why he spoke out against the arch hangar bill recently.

“It would be sad to waste this incredible economic asset,” Judkins said about the hangar. “The new-age industries we’re looking to attract can create significant economic and job opportunities for central Aroostook.”