Loring Commerce Centre is 'open for business' with plenty of room for expansion

BY Laurie Schreiber

Photo / Laurie Schreiber
Photo / Laurie Schreiber
In Aroostook County, Loring Development Authority President and CEO Carl Flora is pictured at Loring Commerce Centre's arch hangar, which may be a bit weathered but has room for aircraft and growing companies.

For British Cycle Supply Co. in Nova Scotia, complicated logistics make it cheaper to import U.K. motorcycle parts to the United States.

So when it closed its New Jersey warehouse, owner Mark Appleton sought an another U.S. location. For proximity, northern Maine made sense.

“A real estate agent said, 'Have you tried Loring?'” Appleton recalls. “I said, 'What's Loring?'”

The agent was referring to Limestone's Loring Commerce Centre, which, with 8,700 acres and hundreds of buildings, is Maine's largest industrial park.

Repurposed from the former Loring Air Force Base, which closed in 1994, it's since evolved into a commercial, industrial and aviation park that is today home to 28 employers and over 800 workers (and as many as 1,500 employees in the past). Yet it has substantial room for more business development in existing buildings and on developable sites. It's supported by high-capacity municipal utility infrastructure and a newly constructed dark fiber network.

“It's a resource that's, I won't say hidden,” Appleton says, “but it's not getting the visibility it deserves.”

Loring's fortunes have varied widely. Since 1997, tenants have included the U.S. Department of Defense's Defense Finance and Accounting Service Center and the U.S. Department of Labor's Job Corps. The Maine Military Authority, a quasi-governmental businesses that refurbishes military and mass-transit vehicles, opened at Loring around 1997 and grew to occupy half a million square feet of space.

In addition to British Cycle Supply, other tenants include stainless food service equipment manufacturer SFE Manufacturing, ink manufacturer Graphic Utilities, the millwork shop of Caribou-based S.W. Collins Co., Pineland Farms and Frontier Transport.

In 2017, Joseph Alosa Sr., owner of Concord, N.H.-based New England Kenworth, opened a Kenworth dealership and TRP Truck Parts location at Loring. Alosa also opened Loring Industries to specialize in vehicle, equipment and component refurbishment.

At one time, nearly all of Loring's large buildings were full.

“Eight or nine years ago, our major concern was to finish marketing some smaller facilities because that's all we had left,” says Carl Flora, president and CEO of the Loring Development Authority, the organization that owns, manages and oversees the redevelopment of Loring Commerce Centre. “We were just kind of finishing around the edges.”

The facility hit a plateau around 2010. The Maine Military Authority scaled back to less than half of its square footage and shed 450 employees. A couple of small businesses closed or moved on. Other businesses have already closed or relocated, including a bowling center, golf course, wood products company and a call center, which moved to Caribou.

Today, Flora sees interest from potential investors and also potential for expansion by tenants like Loring Industries.

“We have significant investor interest in transit and air cargo right now,” says Flora.

Appleton was impressed when Flora first showed him around. He bought a 7,500-square-foot building and several acres. Despite high fuel costs and the burden of shoveling snow, Appleton says disadvantages are outweighed by the support provided by Flora and his team, who helped choose the building, get it operational and arrange a mortgage.

“We never ran into a 'You can't do this' situation,” Appleton says. “It's, 'Let's figure out how to make this happen.'”

He's also impressed by the workforce.

“People are resourceful,” he says. After hiring a Caribou woman, “I gave her the keys and a credit card and — this is a 7,500-square-foot place — she set it up, laid it out in accordance with OSHA rules and got it going. And there's good, steady staff. It was hard getting steady, reliable staff in New Jersey, where the society is more mobile. It's really nice when you're hiring a person who grew up in the area and everyone knows them.”

Ben Glass is CEO of Altaeros, which he co-founded in 2010 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Altaeros uses Loring to test prototypes of its tethered aerial platform, which delivers high-speed mobile broadband to rural communities. Investors include SoftBank Group Corp., Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Suhail Bahwan Group, according to its website.

Glass found Flora and his team eager to accommodate the project, which found the enormous indoor space it needed in Loring's 92-foot-high arch hangar, plus open airspace. The Altaeros systems uses a helium-filled aerostat, something like a small blimp.

“If you look for that combination of two things, there's not that many places,” says Glass.

Loring provided trucks and equipment, kept areas plowed and provided housing.

“Especially early on, in 2011, we were a small start-up and not a lot of resources. Carl was super helpful in making it affordable for us to come up there,” says Glass.

In this case, distance was a challenge. Glass recalls needing a particular adhesive from its headquarters in Somerville, Mass., a six-and-a-half hour drive from Loring. Altaeros team members on each end met halfway for the transfer.

“It's the disadvantage that comes with a smaller town that's further from our primary suppliers,” he says.

A native of nearby Presque Isle, Flora hired on with the Loring Development Authority in 1995 as vice president and general counsel. The 1995 opening of the Defense Finance and Accounting Service Center was a big deal.

“Before that, there was nothing much happening except the Air Force packing up and shipping out,” Flora recalls. “When DFAS took occupancy of their building, that brought new people into the mix.”

DFAS, a back office function for the U.S. Department of Defense and today Loring's largest tenant, hired 300 employees. Job Corps arrived in 1997, occupying nine buildings for 200 to 400 students. Maine Military Authority, which started out repairing and overhauling National Guard equipment, opened around the same time, peaking around 2008 with over 500 people occupying nine buildings. It was a busy scene, says Flora.

“There were Humvees and 5-ton trucks and mobile field kitchens and boats and communications shelters,” he describes. “In their heyday, they were going strong.”

Maine Military Authority's fortunes waned as the National Guard pared contracts. In 2014, it took on a contract worth $18.5 million to overhaul Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority buses. With that project close to completion, the Loring Development Authority brought in investor Alosa to establish Loring Industries and bring in new work.

“One thing we saw with the Maine Military Authority was the need to have those skills housed in a private sector company,” says Flora.

Loring Industries General Manager Tim McCabe supervises 23 employees working on dump trucks, plow trucks and coach buses. He's looking to grow the business, particularly in the coach bus sector.

“There are lots of coaches in this country — tens of thousands,” says McCabe, who finds contracts through the company's reputation and by “knocking on doors.”

McCabe says he hasn't had problems finding employees, in some cases luring them with higher pay from other companies. One worker came from Job Corps. McCabe provides on-the-job training.

“As they continue to develop new lines of work, they'll continue to hire,” predicts Flora.

Aroostook County's aging demographics pose challenges. “The best thing we can do is cultivate the employers who will create good-quality jobs,” Flora says. “Hopefully those employers find business conditions that are steady and stable enough that they can say to existing and future employees, that, 'Hey, we're here to stay and if you sign on with us you can stay as long as you want.'”

Flora says the No. 1 job is to sell the facility. “But then the questions get broader,” he continues. “'If I'm going to move or establish my business there, what's the lifestyle like, where do my kids go to school?' We do a pretty good job of selling the rural outdoor lifestyle. There are people who love the idea that you can own an old farmhouse and 50 acres of land and have a snowmobile and go fishing and hunting.”

Other advantages include Loring's designation as an Opportunity Zone, fiberoptic high-speed internet service, high-capacity municipal utility infrastructure, Job Corps as a feeder program, a runway and an arch hangar capable of housing large aircraft.

“If you look at it in terms of aviation routes and the movement of air cargo across continents, we're not in a bad position at all,” Flora says.

“We're within a day's truck drive of two-thirds of the population of the United States,” says Flora. “So if you have a global perspective, we're not far from the bulk of the Northeast population. But if you have a narrower perspective and you're thinking about your product in a market that includes southern Maine and southern New England, then we're a long way. It depends on what the product is and what the market is.”