LIMESTONE, Maine — The people behind an industrial park created nearly 30 years ago at the former Loring Air Force Base are more aggressively recruiting and trying to retain employers in order to grow the Limestone region’s economy.
Limestone lost its largest employer and experienced a population exodus that the area has not fully recovered from when the U.S. Air Force left in 1994.
The Loring Development Authority, created in the aftermath of the closure, has worked toward economic recovery by operating Loring Commerce Centre, a 3,800-acre industrial, commercial and aviation complex that employs 750 people. But the recent loss of major employers and hundreds of jobs has made Loring Development officials realize that they need to do more to attract businesses.
With $400,000 in funds from Maine’s supplemental budget, Loring Development Authority is beginning a two-year marketing campaign that will revamp its website and social media presence. Loring Development hopes that making connections with various industries nationwide will result in more jobs for residents of Limestone and surrounding communities.
Loring Development will work with Steve Levesque, a consultant from SHL Enterprise Solutions in Greenville, to create newsletters and develop ties with industry leaders at state and national trade shows.
“There has been some activity [in recent years], but we have not had the big home runs that we’ve hoped for,” said Carl Flora, Loring Development president and CEO. “We need to grow back and go further than we’ve been before.”
Defense Finance Accounting Service, which processes financial payments for the U.S. Department of Defense, is the largest company at Loring Commerce Centre, with nearly 600 people employed.
The entire center employs 750 people at nearly 30 businesses, according to the Loring Development Authority’s latest annual report.
But recently, the number of jobs lost has begun exceeding those that exist.
In 2018, the Maine Military Authority closed its equipment repair facility, resulting in 500 fewer jobs. Though Loring Industries began a transportation equipment repair facility in the same location, the company shuttered operations in early 2021 after its owner died.
Other major employers that have left include Hydroblend, a food processing center, and the customer service call center Sitel, which relocated to Caribou in 2015 but closed permanently in the region in 2019. The two companies combined employed more than 200 people.
“The issue for us has been replacing some of these mainstay businesses that have left,” Flora said.
Now there are more than 25 buildings available to businesses at Loring Commerce Centre. Most businesses that have opened recently, including a hay processing facility, are locally owned and do not have the capacity to employ large numbers of people.
After conducting a sustainability study, the Loring Development has identified key industries to target for development through its new marketing campaign: manufacturing, transportation machinery repair, forest products, solar and biomass energy, food processing and other agricultural businesses, aviation and aerospace.
Loring’s former aviation complex, sitting on 1,600 acres, has been one of the Commerce Centre’s underutilized spaces, Flora said. Previously used as the base’s airport, it is an area that Loring officials say could be revamped for large aircraft repair and overhaul, and for aerospace equipment testing.
Loring’s runway helped make history in 2021 after the Brunswick-based bluShift Aerospace launched the first commercial rocket powered by a bio-derived fuel. But bluShift later scrapped plans for a second launch at Loring, choosing instead to look at potential coastal sites in Maine.
“Our hangars are well-suited for [aviation and aerospace] work, but it’s a matter of finding the right prospects,” Flora said.
Loring Development’s business outreach will correspond with major structural upgrades to campus, and newfound concerns about the former base’s environmental impact.
A recently approved $3.1 congressional spending package will allow the LDA to reduce four-lane roads to two lanes and demolish several buildings in disrepair that have not been used since Loring’s Air Force days.
Loring Development is also seeking funding for sewer system upgrades that officials hope will make the area more habitable for businesses.
There is also the issue of per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS “forever” chemicals being found on the former base. So far no PFAS has been found near Loring Development businesses, but Flora hopes that the public investigation will not deter future developers.
“I think that the Air Force’s ability to get an accurate picture [of PFAS presence] will help future development. Any questions that businesses have, we’ll have answers to,” Flora said.
Though it will likely take many years before the Loring Development brings more substantial business growth to the Limestone area, Flora still thinks there lies potential in getting it closer to the group’s original vision.
“We’ve always envisioned a vibrant commercial, industrial and business center that attracts new people to The County,” Flora said. “In order to recover, we’ll need to have a strong strategy.”