LIMESTONE, Maine — The northern Maine wind blew across the broad, empty runways of the former Loring Air Force Base. Small “land sailors”—like iceboats on wheels—swooped and sped across the open expanse, taking full advantage of the space.
Since Loring closed in 1994, the runways have seen little activity. The efforts to redevelop the old base have been ongoing, but have not brought the lasting prosperity and success those in northern Aroostook County have wanted.
“The challenges are plentiful,” Carl Flora, longtime CEO and president of the Loring Development Authority, said. “Number one, it’s a challenging location. Winters are tough, we are not in a natural development location.”
Loring is remote by most standards: About 170 miles north of Bangor, more than 300 road miles from Portland, and just minutes from the U.S. border with Canada.
But it also has highly unusual assets, from a two-mile runway to large, empty aircraft hangars and 3,800 total acres of land.
The LDA had early successes in redeveloping the base. The Pentagon agreed to locate a branch of the Defense Finance and Accounting Service on the former base. Nearly 600 people still work there today according to Flora, providing Important jobs for the area.
With the state’s help, the LDA also created the Maine Military Authority, as a facility to rebuild damaged military Humvees and other vehicles, sent from all over the country.
It, too, prospered for a time.
“They started with about 20 people and got up to 500,” Flora said. “But then it started going the other way. By 2017-18, numbers had gone close to zero and then it closed.”
He says the redevelopment effort went on, but the loss of the Military Authority jobs was a major blow. The LDA was not able to attract other employers with similar job numbers. That decline hit the LDA’s finances, as it depends on income from property leases or sales to pay the bills “to keep the lights on,” as Flora explained.
That led the LDA to try a new approach. After 30 years of marketing and guiding development itself, the LDA board decided to seed part of the old base to a private developer. In April they closed the deal with developer Scott Hinkel, from the Portland area, who says he purchased 450 acres, with more than 20 buildings, plus an option to buy more of the base at a later time.
Hinkel says during the purchase process he met and talked with many local people about the possibilities at the former base.
“What does the area need?” the developer says he asked. “We want our jobs back, we want our jobs back. We want to get here and figure what can we do with that base?”
“It seemed the thing that made the most sense,” Flora said of the decision to sell. The deal brought some much-needed funds to the LDA and some new energy and ideas to the redevelopment work. Neither Flora nor Hinkel would reveal the sale price.
The LDA has also been getting new marketing help, thanks to Steve Levesque, the former executive director of the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority in Brunswick, who led the successful redevelopment of the Brunswick Naval Air Station over the past 12 years.
Levesque retired from that job, but then was hired by the state on a contract to market Loring. Levesque says he has contacted several aircraft repair and restoration companies around the country and beyond.
“This is the closest airport to Europe in the U.S., and there are a lot of opportunities there,” he said.
He says he has also had talks with aerospace businesses looking to develop and test aircraft, even to build and launch rockets or satellites from airplanes. All those ideas depend on the use of the giant Loring runways and the large, empty hangars—assets he says would cost billions of dollars to replicate.
“It’s already here, already paid for by the taxpayers. Why not try to reuse it?”
That work is applauded by Scott Hinkel, whose company, Green 4 Maine, is now looking for ways to use many of the old base buildings. He doesn’t currently own the hangars but says aerospace and related manufacturing, monitoring, and testing are ideal uses.
He is also looking at non-aviation opportunities.
One large building has been leased by a solar energy contractor, which is basing its construction of grid-scale solar projects there.
Hinkel proudly showed off the former Maine Military Authority building. That large, empty structure was fully renovated, with industrial electrical, air, and HVAC systems that can be used for many types of manufacturing.
Hinkel already has a plan.
“We’re thinking tiny home manufacturing. When you look at the building you could easily have two production lines manufacturing tiny homes in here. I think the tiny homes model is much needed in New England.”
He said he is already in talks with potential investors and manufacturers for such a business.
Both Green 4 Maine and the LDA are keeping their fingers crossed for another, bigger project.
A Washington, D.C.-based company called DG Fuerls has been in talks with the LDA about building a “biorefinery” at Loring, which would produce aviation fuel from refining waste wood.
The company’s Facebook page states it has already signed a long-term lease for 1,200 acres at Loring. Carl Flora, Steve Levesque, and Scott Hinkel all say they believe DG Fuels is serious.
“I do, the developer is spending real money which I don’t think they would do if not serious,” Flora said.
“It’s a big deal, not just for the county, it’s a big deal for Maine and for New England,” Hinkel stated.
He said he has also had discussions with the head of DG Fuels. That company has described the project as a billion-dollar investment, providing 650 permanent jobs and as many as two thousand during construction.
Accommodating that many people would require rejuvenated facilities at the former base, including a significant amount of new housing. Both Hinkel and Flora say the biorefinery could potentially rebuild and use the former Air Force fuel pipeline that runs from Loring to Bangor and Searsport, as a way to send the aviation fuel to East Coast airports.
“This is exciting stuff,” Hinkel said.
Asked if the former base would show redevelopment results in the coming year, Hinkel was emphatic that it would.
“The lights are back on again. we turn the property on and people are starting to look at it differently.”
For Flora, standing in the wind outside the former base headquarters, the possibilities and the promise of Loring are still out there, after 30 years of striving to see them fulfilled.
His dream for the former Air Force Base is a dream for his neighbors in Aroostook County.
“My dream,” the LDA president said, as the wind gusted across the runway, “would be that when you talk to someone in the community that remembers what this was like, they would say ‘Well, we have enough going on now that we are better off than we were.'”