Larry Clark has spent almost five decades at the helm of the Presque Isle Industrial Council, working with small and large companies to set up shop at a former Air Force base.

Clark is set to retire this fall from his 48-year post as executive director of the economic development organization, leaving a career spanning generations of workers and industries that have come and gone at the Skyway Industrial Park, a mile west of downtown Presque Isle.

Gone are big companies like Converse and Aroostook Shoe, which employed many of the more than 1,500 people who worked at the industrial park during its peak. Today, more than 600 people work at more than 40 small and mid-sized companies and organizations based at the park.

“We’re very fortunate to have the companies we have,” Clark said. “They are stable at this point in time.”

The industrial council has retained a varied group of employers, including Columbia Forest Products, Aroostook Trusses, FedEx, Northeast Packaging and Child Development Services, by renting or selling affordable land and buildings.

Now 72, Clark was Maine’s youngest economic development manager when he got the executive director job in 1968 at the age of 24. He was fresh from a short stint as Presque Isle’s first code enforcement officer and six years as an electrician at the Vahlsing potato factory in his native town of Easton.

The Presque Isle City Council created the industrial council, or PIIC, in 1961, after the community learned that the Air Force Base would be closing due to the military’s phase-out of the short-lived and obsolete Snark nuclear missile system.

Started as an Army air field in 1941, the base employed about 275 civilians and 1,200 military personnel at its peak, which left business and government leaders in Presque Isle concerned when the closing was announced. While a number of farmers lost their land to the military over the years, “Presque Isle was flourishing and part of it was because of the base that was here,” Clark said.

“A very active group of people within the community got together and were of the opinion that if they could acquire this former military property, they could do something with it, rather than see a junk dealer buy it.”

Seventy-three military installations closed in 1961, but “no community had ever taken on this kind of a task,” Clark said of Presque Isle’s bid to take over the base’s land and building assets. In less than a year, the city worked out a deal to take over 1,890 acres of land comprising the airport for $1, and to pay the federal government $56,000 ($440,000 in today’s dollars) for 440 acres of industrial space, including six missile buildings.

With International Paper, Columbia Forest Products, Aroostook Shoe, Converse and the Northern Maine Vocational Technical school at the Skyway Industrial Park, Presque Isle remained bustling through the 1960s, with a population approaching 13,000. In 1965, the head of local Northern National Bank told the Chicago Tribune that good-paying jobs were bringing back “many persons who were forced years ago to seek employment elsewhere.”

It was in that relatively prosperous time that Clark became the industrial council’s third director. Economic development “was not my background,” but some colleagues in city government encouraged him to apply based on his technical experience.

He hit the ground running, and in the 1970s oversaw a major expansion at Converse, with the doubling of its workforce, and ongoing partnerships with Aroostook Shoe, International Paper and others. But by the 1990s, they were adapting to the closures of those employers, as manufacturing moved abroad.

“The heyday of those industries are over,” Clark said.

Of the original large factories, only Columbia Forest Products remains, although Clark points to several firms that have been gradually growing since the 1980s, notably Northeast Packaging, which makes paper and polyethylene bags, and medical device maker Acme Monaco, which is in the midst of expanding and adding more than 20 jobs to its 70-plus workforce. In the last 20 years, new, smaller businesses also have set up at the Skyway Industrial Park, including Aroostook Trusses and the precision machine shop CanAm Manufacturing.

Off the Skyway Industrial Park, the PIIC worked on behalf of the city on three tax increment financing projects with Maine Mutual Group, Lowe’s and the Hampton Inn, and collaborated with Presque Isle’s downtown advocates to reopen the Braden Theatre by taking an option to buy the property until a buyer and operator was found.

Despite global outsourcing, the rise of industrial automation and an aging regional population, Clark said he thinks the PIIC’s model can still offer good options for small companies in a range of niche industries.

“Companies are hesitant to make an investment in brick and mortar. We’ve always said, ‘Put your money into equipment.’ That’s what’s going to make you money. We can provide the building.”

In the past, some local residents have voiced skepticism about the municipal government essentially operating its own industrial real estate business.

“Some of the comments we hear occasionally is, ‘You’re in competition with me owning real estate and you shouldn’t be.’”

Clark said that local real estate agents and the industrial council operate in different markets for land, and that the PIIC has coexisted with other businesses throughout Presque Isle. With the exception of the Department of Environmental Protection branch office, all of the industrial park’s tenants pay property taxes and aren’t receiving subsidies from the city, although some companies are the beneficiaries of federal funding.

“One thing that has separated the council from a lot of other economic development agencies is we have land and buildings available for development, and when somebody knocks at the door and asks for space, we’ve got something to offer.”

The PIIC has three full-time staff, plus three to four seasonal maintenance workers, and has always operated without losing money. Last year, the PIIC made money for the Presque Isle city government, with a net income of $178,000.

Leaving with that and other contributions, after such a long time, Clark said he has enjoyed his work, and wants to relax but remain active in retirement.

“My hobby is woodworking. I expect to volunteer for something. And I have grandkids who I want to spend time with,” Clark said.