An aerial view of the Loring Commerce Center in Limestone. Loring officials want to designate the former Air Force base as a foreign trade zone, allowing companies to import materials without fees. Credit: Courtesy of Loring Development Authority

LIMESTONE, Maine — As more industries show interest in locating at Limestone’s former Loring Air Force Base, officials want to make it easier for companies to trade across international borders.

If approved by the U.S. Department of Commerce, the Loring Development Authority would designate the 3,800-acre Loring Commerce Center as a foreign trade zone.

A foreign trade zone allows any companies within that area to apply for free trade designation, eliminating fees that would come from importing materials for products assembled in the United States.

That means existing and future companies would not have to pay duty fees for items crossing international boundaries.

The designation could help Loring attract larger companies at a time when new investors want to bring back thousands of jobs that the region has lost in the past decade.

“This gives us another economic development tool for attracting industries that import products internationally,” said Steve Levesque, a consultant with SHL Enterprise Solutions in Greenville, who is working with Loring Development Authority.

Maine currently has foreign trade zones in Waterville, Bangor and Madawaska, according to International Trade Administration data. The Madawaska zone is inactive because the business that was utilizing its benefits — Evergreen Manufacturing — closed in 2016.

Limestone’s location near a Canadian port of entry makes Loring the ideal place for a foreign trade zone, said Wayne Coleman, president of C3 Associates, a consulting firm specializing in trade zone applications.

“It’s almost impossible for a company in Limestone now to drive to Bangor [to import materials],” Coleman said during a Loring Development Authority board meeting Wednesday. “But Limestone’s location is convenient.”

Loring Development Authority’s board of trustees has unanimously approved Loring’s application for the foreign trade zone, which includes letters of support from U.S. Sens.  Susan Collins and Angus King, U.S. Rep. Jared Golden and Maine Gov. Janet Mills.

The new trade designation would coincide with Loring Development Authority’s just-launched marketing campaign.

That campaign revamped Loring’s website and began outreach to companies within aerospace, transportation machinery repair, technology and aviation that could bring jobs and major employers back to the commerce center.

So far those efforts have helped bring in DG Fuels, a Washington D.C. company looking to build a $4 billion facility that would produce sustainable aviation fuel. Company officials have said that 650 new jobs could be created after construction finishes in 2027. The company aims to start construction next year.

Most recently, Green 4 Maine, LLC, purchased 450 of the commerce center’s 3,800 acres, with plans to create a workforce and housing hub. In April, a Kennebunk-based artificial intelligence company announced plans to build a research center on Green 4 Maine land and potentially bring from 30 to 50 new jobs.

While few companies at Loring regularly transport materials across the border, a foreign trade zone could attract companies who do, said Carl Flora, Loring Development Authority president and CEO.

Defense Finance Accounting Service is Loring’s largest employer, with nearly 600 of the commerce center’s 750 total employees.

SFE Manufacturing provides fabrication for paper mills, the lumber industry and food processing equipment. The company does not regularly import equipment from Canada, said company president Doug Morrell.

Loring has struggled to retain large manufacturing and industrial companies since losing Hydroblend, a food processing center, and the Maine Military Authority’s equipment repair facility, which combined employed at least 600 people. Non-industrial companies that have left include Sitel, which employed more than 100 people.

It could take several months before the board knows if the Department of Commerce has approved the foreign trade zone, Flora said.