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BRUNSWICK — From local entrepreneurs to the administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, community leaders last week said Brunswick doesn’t deserve an anti-business label.
They reacted to an assertion by disbarred criminal defense attorney F. Lee Bailey, who in a Feb. 9 letter to the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority said he was dropping an attempt to launch an aircraft refurbishing business as part of the reuse of Brunswick Naval Air Station.
Bailey claimed a group of investors considering joining his venture were dissuaded by comments from Town Councilors Margo Knight and Ben Tucker in the Feb. 5 edition of The Forecaster. Their statements followed news that Oxford Aviation would now take a subsidiary role in base redevelopment plans, but would still be part of Bailey’s new lease proposal.
Both councilors expressed skepticism about those plans and wondered whether Bailey’s group was actually a mask for Oxford Aviation, which hoped to establish a division at BNAS until its qualifications and past performance were publicly scrutinized.
Bailey, who previously represented Oxford Aviation, said the investors “were much put off by the public and truculent offensive statements” made by the councilors.
“Brunswick has been flirting with a reputation for being hostile to business in the past,” he added, noting that the councilors’ comments “have convinced my colleagues that this reputation is fact.”
But Karen Mills, administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, said Brunswick is “a really vibrant town and community” that balances the interests of its residents and businesses.
“We need to make sure that they grow and flourish and succeed,” she said, “and that’s how the town is going to continue to be a place that gives the kind of special quality of life that we have here in Brunswick and here in Maine.”
She praised the downtown association as “vibrant and effective” in bringing together small businesses to help each other and the community. Mills, who is married to Bowdoin College President Barry Mills, also noted there is a strong connection between the town and the college.
Knight declined to comment specifically on Bailey’s remarks. She argued, though, that Brunswick is indeed pro-business.
“One of our top goals is responsible economic and community development in town,” she said. “And I really emphasize ‘responsible.’”
Knight’s husband, David, is a member of the Downtown Brunswick Association.
“I really believe in the downtown,” David Knight said. “… And I believe that we have a very level-headed community.”
David Markovchick, the town’s director of economic and community development, said comments like Bailey’s can be harmful.
“You’re selling against the grain in perception,” he said. “We’re in tough economic times … globally, so any perception that you’re not wanted for any reason makes it very difficult to do your job and convey an opposite message.”
Markovchick said Brunswick is a gateway coastal community and “a great college town,” with about 700 acres of “developable high-tech commercial property” at BNAS.
“There aren’t a whole lot of places in Maine or anywhere else in New England that probably has some of the attributes that we do,” he said.
And Markovchick said Brunswick wants to make the most of those attributes. He pointed to the vibrancy of the downtown association and said the upcoming extension of the Amtrak Downeaster rail line from Portland will be an important economic boon.
“What Brunswick is doing is going through transitional growth pains” in the wake of the base closure, Markovchick said. “MRRA and Brunswick face (the challenge) of how to replace one large corporation with a lot of other businesses, and creating economic diversity.”
Richard Morrell, co-chairman and former president of Downeast Energy, which has been in his family since 1931, said he thought Maine generally could be more pro-business.
“They talk about it,” he said, “but they continue to pass things in the Legislature that certainly don’t appear to me to be pro-business.”
He said Brunswick is “reasonably pro-business. It depends on the issues, somewhat, and like anything else, sometimes we gripe and other times we’re grateful.
“I think Brunswick is trying to be helpful,” Morrell continued. “They’ve been quite helpful to the Maine Street Station folks, setting up these (tax increment financing districts) that encourage commercial development. … You’ve got groups on the downtown association that are doing an awfully good job. It’s not an easy thing to be doing (in tough economic times).”
Looking at Brunswick’s business climate over the past few decades, Morrell said, “we’ve sometimes had folks who are a little bit more restrictive and make things a little bit complicated, but that ebbs and flows. I think we’ve got to be extremely pro-business in the next few years, because we haven’t yet begun to feel the full effects of the base closing.”
Mills said she brought that question to the table as a member of the Governor’s Council for the Redevelopment of the Brunswick Naval Air Station.
In the past there had been a notion throughout Maine that anything related to economic growth conflicted with quality of place, Mills said.
But, she added, “we have evolved in this state to understand that quality of place is not in conflict with, but instead linked … to economic growth and prosperity, that if we lose our quality of place, which is one of our defining attractions here in Maine, we aren’t going to be able to get the people, the entrepreneurs, the companies and the investments that we need to grow our economy.
“So it’s essential to maintain our quality of place, because it’s part of our special brand, our special advantage. It’s one of our assets.”
Mills was also involved in the launch of the North Star Alliance, a cluster of boat builders and composite technology companies, which led to the opening of a composites training center in Brunswick.
“By working in this connection between people like the boat builders, people like the composite companies, who we have a lot of in Brunswick, and the town, and the base commission,” she said, “we’ve been able to establish now that this area’s going to be a center for composites.”
Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or [email protected].