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A former Air Force base near the Canadian border with two 12,100-foot runways that used to launch Boeing B-52 bombers during the Cold War could fuel new growth in Maine’s aviation and aerospace industry.
Steve Levesque, a consultant under contract from the state government to lead business development at the Loring Commerce Centre in the Aroostook County town of Limestone, estimates that $50 million to $75 million is needed in public money to develop a public airport at the former base.
So far, the U.S. Department of Defense has provided a $740,000 grant, matched by $85,000 from the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, to fund an airport master plan, an energy resiliency study and a regional workforce assessment.
The crucial next step would be to gain designation as a public-use airport in the national system, which Levesque aims to secure over the next 12 to 15 months.
“It involves being able to make a business case for desired uses of the airport,” says Levesque, the former executive director of the Midcoast Regional Development Authority who led the metamorphosis of the former Brunswick Naval Air Station into a thriving business hub.
Now a Greenville-based consultant with SHL Enterprise Solutions, Levesque said he felt a sense of accomplishment when Air Force One touched down at Brunswick Executive Airport last month for President Joe Biden’s one-day visit.
“It would not have happened unless it was an FAA-supported airport,” Levesque says.
Confident that Loring will go that same route, he sees opportunities in areas from large aircraft maintenance and repairs to horizontal satellite launches.
“There are some really exciting markets that we’re trying to access,” he says.
At Loring, “the bones are good, but they need a little updating, just like in Brunswick, which is why we want to get into the FAA system.”
Besides Maine’s longest runways, the 1,600-acre Loring aviation complex includes an unused control tower, a rusty arch hangar popular with pigeons but spacious enough to accommodate wide-body aircraft; hundreds of acres of ramp space and a parallel taxiway; and buildings of various sizes.
Located in rural Aroostook County, the site also offers uncluttered airspace in a sparsely populated region in Maine’s high north.
Since 1997, Loring International Airport has operated as a private take-off and landing spot for small aircraft. The site, quiet on a recent rainy morning except for a flock of wild turkeys, also hosts occasional events. In August 1997, 70,000 people attended a concert there by rock band Phish, briefly turning Limestone, population 1,523, into Maine’s most populated town. More recently, in August 2022, a B-52 made a guest appearance for a ceremonial visit organized by the Loring Air Museum.
Out of 41 entities that have a business presence at Loring today or own or lease land there, the largest is the Defense Finance Accounting Service, an arm of the U.S. Defense Department with close to 600 employees in Maine. The agency is a tenant of Green 4 Maine LLC, a development company in talks to bring an aerospace startup to Loring.
Despite Loring’s profile as Maine’s largest commercial and industrial park, local and state officials see a brighter future for the site as a public airport.
“The airport is the key to development of new businesses in the aviation and aerospace sector,” says Carl Flora, president and CEO of the Loring Development Authority.
“Those businesses will touch off demand for products and support services provided by other businesses. While we operate as a private airport now, without the support of the FAA’s airport improvement program and the military airports program, we can’t afford to make significant improvements and upgrades necessary for the airport’s continued use.”
FAA funding covers a wide range of projects from runways to navigational aids, lighting and fueling systems — all of which are important “to support the more intensive level of aviation and aerospace uses that we envision,” Flora says.
The effort to turn Loring into a public airport comes amid a bullish outlook for aerospace nationwide over the next 20 years, as laid out in an FAA report published in May.
Besides predicting a 2.7% average annual jump in U.S. carrier domestic passenger growth between 2023 and 2043, the agency forecasts an increase in space launch and re-entry activity over the next five years. The agency attributes much of the momentum to the lineup of reusable vehicles and expectations for increased human space exploration.
Researchers also highlight the drone sector’s enormous promise, with potential for private use by individuals and businesses as well as public service uses such as search and rescue support missions following natural disasters.
Loring marketing materials make the case for the former Air Force base as ideally suited to support the next generation of unmanned aircraft systems or drones and new space industries.
The latter could include testing, development and operation of horizontal satellite launches and recovery on Loring’s long runways, and management of low orbit space systems. Despite other airports in the region, a public Loring facility would carve out its own niche.
“We are not looking to recreate existing infrastructure or compete with Presque Isle International Airport or Caribou International Airport,” says DECD Deputy Commissioner Denise Garland.
“These entities each support different aviation niches, and activating Loring’s vast aviation assets will complement the region’s ability to compete for our aviation business.”
Another plus would be the availability of another airport for LifeFlight of Maine for medical emergencies, she says, certain of Levesque’s ability to lead the effort.
“Steve Levesque has spent the majority of his career focusing on economic development for the state of Maine, and I don’t think we could find a better champion to spearhead the business efforts at Loring,” she said.
Despite the similarities between the two projects, Garland underscores the location difference, saying: “We are not looking to recreate Brunswick Landing at Loring, but rather looking to attract businesses that will complement the region.”
Loring Air Force Base, established in 1947 when Harry Truman was president, was named for Charles J. Loring Jr., a World War II fighter pilot who later served in the Korean War. He rose to the rank of major and was killed in action in Korea in November 1952, posthumously receiving the Medal of Honor.
The base was closed in 1994 and later redeveloped by the Loring Development Authority as an industrial park known as the Loring Commerce Centre anchored by Loring International Airport.
A 1995 plan to repurpose the former base evaluated Loring’s aviation assets, and stayed in a holding pattern for over two decades. Not until 2019 and 2021 did strategic plans identify aviation as a promising long-term development opportunity.
Today, Vermont-based consulting firm Dubois & King is working on a plan to convert Loring into a public airport under contract from the Loring Development Authority, funded by $540,000 out of the $740,000 Pentagon grant.
The process is expected to take around 12 months and will involve participation from the state and local stakeholders, as well as input from the FAA, according to DECD’s Garland.
“Activating the Loring Airport,” she predicts, “will complement the airports in Aroostook County and enhance the region as a whole.”
Once Loring is recognized as a public airport, it would be followed by a capital improvement to be implemented in phases over the next five to 10 years, Levesque explains.
Loring redevelopment ambitions include putting Maine on the map in the new space economy by supporting activities such as the testing and development of drones and autonomous land vehicles.
Loring could also play a key role in the envisioned Maine Space Complex. Still in the early planning stages, the complex would consist of a virtual Space Data and Advanced Analytics Center, a New Space Innovation Hub at Brunswick Landing with a hub or branch at Loring Commerce Centre, and coastal launch sites and services. Horizontal satellite launches from Brunswick Landing and Loring would be part of that.
Keeping an eye on Loring’s trajectory is Sascha Deri, founder and CEO of Brunswick Landing-based bluShift Aerospace. The nine-employee rocket startup made history at Loring in January 2021 with the world’s first commercial launch of a rocket powered by biofuel.
“Right now, our plan is to do vertical launches off the coast of Maine, but it’s possible that our engines could be used in horizontal launch vehicles at some point in the future,” Deri says. “We could see that future customers of ours could incorporate our engine technology into their horizontal launch vehicles strapped underneath planes, and Loring has a uniquely long runway that would be particularly well-suited to support this type of launch.”
Once Loring gets cleared for take-off as a public airport, the sky may be the limit for bluShift and other innovators seeking their fortunes in a galaxy far, far away.