BRUNSWICK — The Town Council could soon help determine the fate of Oxford Aviation’s expansion plans at Brunswick Naval Air Station, a project that’s come under increased scrutiny because of the private firm’s past performance.
The company’s performance was expected to be examined Wednesday night in Fryeburg, where local airport officials were planning to discuss revoking Oxford Aviation’s lease.
In Brunswick, according to Town Manager Gary Brown and the executive director of the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, the council may be asked to authorize a $400,000 Community Development Block Grant application that could be used to assist MRRA’s purchase of an $800,000 paint booth to accommodate Oxford Aviation’s plans to refurbish jetliner-sized aircraft at BNAS.
Steve Levesque, MRRA’s executive director, in August said MRRA would own the paint booth and lease it to Oxford Aviation for its planned Brunswick Jet Division. Levesque added that the council will be asked in October to make the town the conduit for the CDBG funding.
Brown said Tuesday that he isn’t sure if MRRA’s request will precede the authority’s Oct. 20 vote on a lease agreement with Oxford Aviation.
But the outcome of that vote – and the council’s CDBG authorization – is increasingly in doubt.
Oxford Aviation’s plans to create the Brunswick Jet Division has been closely examined since MRRA signed a memorandum of understanding with the company a year ago, and most recently, following a report highlighting the company’s failed attempt to create the Sanford Jet Division, its political connections and inability to follow through on job creation requirements in exchange for state or federal grants. The report also raised questions about state politicians using Oxford Aviation’s job promises to champion economic development achievements.
Members of the authority’s board of directors have refused to comment publicly about the pending lease agreement, perhaps because of a reluctance to rile Oxford Aviation’s boosters in Augusta. The latter include John Richardson, the commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, who is a MRRA board member and a potential gubernatorial candidate.
In the past the company has received strong endorsements from Gov. John Baldacci. Baldacci is responsible for nominating MRRA directors.
It’s unclear if the company’s political alliances will impact the council’s decision to authorize the CDBG application. Several councilors have publicly expressed skepticism about bringing the company to the base, including at-large Councilor Debbie Atwood.
Atwood on Sept. 19 e-mailed Levesque to say that comments from resident Pem Schaeffer and recent news reports left her feeling “unsettled” about the company’s Brunswick expansion plans.
Councilor Karen Klatt expressed similar feelings on Monday, while Councilor Ben Tucker said Wednesday that he would not support the CDBG authorization.
Meanwhile, it’s unclear if other councilors will be swayed by promises that the town will be held harmless financially in the CDBG authorization. During Monday’s council meeting, Brown set the stage for that when he told the council that he would seek such language before bringing the grant forward.
“We’re going to make sure we’re the conduit and (Oxford Aviation or MRRA) is responsible financially,” Brown reiterated Tuesday. “If we can’t secure that kind of language from MRRA, we won’t recommend it to the council.”
Brown is a MRRA director whose term expires this year; whether he is reappointed is up to Baldacci. He is one of two Brunswick representatives on the 11-member board, a ratio that has drawn concerns from some Brunswick councilors who worry the town may be losing influence in the redevelopment process.
Brown acknowledged that he could face political pressure to pitch the grant in such a way to encourage the council’s CDBG authorization, but said that hasn’t happened.
Prior to Monday’s council meeting, Brown said he hadn’t had any discussions with MRRA or state officials about the grant.
“I spoke with Commissioner Richardson (Tuesday),” Brown said later. “He understands that the town can’t be put at risk if (Oxford Aviation) fails to perform its obligations.”
Although that assurance could ease councilors’ concerns about Oxford Aviation’s ability to fulfill grant requirements, it may not eliminate questions about the company’s deteriorating relationship with Oxford County, which earlier this year sued the company for breaking its lease agreement by repeatedly withholding rent payments.
Oxford Aviation’s performance has also become an issue at the Eastern Slopes Regional Airport in Fryeburg, where the company runs a small avionics shop and is the airport’s fixed base operator. According to airport manager Dave Cullinan, The Eastern Slopes Airport Authority was scheduled to meet Wednesday. The executive committee, Cullinan said, could discuss Oxford Aviation’s repeated failure to pay rent and fulfill its duties at the airport.
Neither Cullinan nor authority Chairman Don Thibodeau returned calls Thursday to confirm if the board took any formal action against Oxford Aviation.
Meanwhile, Oxford County’s legal battle with Oxford Aviation continues. Oxford Aviation last year initiated the dispute when it sued the county over mold problems in the county-owned hanger. The $935,000 expansion of the hanger was facilitated by the state economic development office in 1996 when it pulled together a complex package of grants, loans and tax incentives for the company.
In return for public funding, the company was supposed to create 50 jobs. Grant close-out documents obtained through a Freedom of Access request show that Oxford Aviation created just 15 jobs. According to a Dec. 20, 1999, letter to the town of Oxford, DECD signed off on the job requirement because of “current and likely circumstances.” The letter did not elaborate.
Despite an estimated $5 million investment by Oxford County, the state and federal agencies, the size of Oxford Aviation’s workforce continues to be a moving target. In a column published in The Forecaster, Horowitz said he employed more than 50 workers. However, in an Aug. 28 interview, he said he employed about 65 people.
Oxford Aviation, often through high-profile attorney F. Lee Bailey, has promised to create about 200 jobs at the Brunswick Jet Division.
Brown said he is not sure when the Town Council will be asked to authorize the CDBG grant. Councilors are expected to hold a workshop with MRRA leaders on Monday, Sept. 28, to discuss the town’s role in the redevelopment process.