Competitors: No room in Brunswick for public hotel at Naval Air Station

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BRUNSWICK — The Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority is seeking a hotel operator for a 248-room hotel at Brunswick Naval Air Station.

The 7-year-old hotel, previously reserved only for Navy personnel and guests, is planned to open to the public by summer. It will increase the number of hotel rooms in Brunswick by 50 percent, pushing the total to 742 from 494, according to data from Smith Travel Research.

That does not include the soon-to-be opened 52-room Inn at Brunswick Station, and the scale of the increase has some existing hotel owners worried that the local market can’t handle any more rooms.

“I just don’t think the area itself, not just Brunswick, can survive that,” said John Verreault, who owns the Captain Daniel Stone Inn on Water Street.

On Tuesday afternoon, MRRA organized a tour of the hotel for interested bidders. The authority is accepting bids until the end of April, is hoping to select an operator by mid-May, and have the hotel open by June.

MRRA will retain ownership of the property, but lease it to a hotel operator. Steve Levesque, MRRA executive director, said he hopes that whomever the MRRA board selects will help to transition the hotel to a conference center and resort, possibly including an indoor water park and championship golf course.

Only one potential bidder showed up for the tour, but Levesque said he has had three or four additional calls from hotel management companies, mostly from within the area.

Don Hebert, who owns NextStep Solutions of Kennebunk, toured the hotel on Tuesday. He said he was “absolutely” interested in the property, and his only real concerns about taking on the hotel have to do with the economy and the uncertainty of many of the business proposals for what will be called Brunswick Landing.

“My biggest concern is that if something doesn’t happen, it really decreases the chances of the property being able to sustain its value,” he said. “As far as the water park and conference center, those seem to be quite a ways down the road.”

Resort, conference center

Levesque is hoping the hotel will generate demand for conferences and provide lodging for the new businesses he hopes to attract to the property.

“There isn’t anything of (this) scale in the region,” he said. “We’re really missing out on a lot of opportunities to attract national conferences.”

A 2007 study by Economics Research Associates on business opportunities at the redeveloped base estimated that a large conference center could capture 10 percent of the meeting and conference market in the state.

The study also found that if a large, indoor water park featuring slides, pools and water rides was added to the hotel, it could generate in the range of 50,000 nightly stays a year.

Concerns from competition

Levesque said the the ultimate success or failure of the hotel hinges on whether it can bring new visitors to the Brunswick region.

“We’re bringing in people to Brunswick that didn’t come before,” he said. “We’re adding to the pie, not subtracting from it.”

Local hotel owners are hoping he’s right, and some fear the worst if he’s not.

“Unless it’s bringing in incremental business to the marketplace, it’s going to be a real blow to all of us,” said Linwood Austin, who owns the Comfort Inn on Pleasant Street.

Austin said the hotel market in Brunswick has been sluggish recently, with an average occupancy rate in 2010 of 44 percent, according to Smith Travel Research. Occupancy rates are traditionally much higher in the summer, ranging from nearly 70 percent last summer to more than 80 percent before the recession. But in the winter, those figures plummet to below 40 percent.

Austin is also concerned about the growing number of rooms in the Brunswick-Freeport area.

Freeport has 100 more rooms now than in 2005. Brunswick has lost almost 200 rooms since 2005, but would grow by 300 with the addition of the Inn at Brunswick Station and the Navy inn.

“You put too many of these services in place, we’re all going to choke each other,” Verreault said. “There’s gotta be a reason to open up these hotels, and I don’t see it.”

The 2007 Economics Research Associates study MRRA commissioned doesn’t cite Brunswick hotel occupancy rates. Neither does MRRA’s business development opportunities packet, which was distributed for the pre-bid tour.

Rather, the ERA study provides statewide occupancy rates from 2000 to 2004, which hovered around 60 percent. Since then, statewide occupancy has remained significantly higher than Brunswick’s, averaging 55.8 percent last year, according to Tennessee-based Smith Travel Research.

Levesque said the omission was intentional. He said the reopened Navy hotel will compete on a regional scale, not only in Brunswick.

Jan Freitag, vice president of STR, which calculates occupancy rates around the country, said a 250-room hotel could succeed in Brunswick if the hotel’s developers are creative and able to lure new customers.

“If the 250-room hotel does it right, they could be a demand generator for the area,” he said. “There may be overflow that other hotels benefit from.”

He especially liked the water park concept, and said something like that would be necessary to get through the slow winter months.

“That’s one way to do it,” he said. “If the water park allows you to get new guests, all the better.”

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or Follow her on Twitter: @guerinemily.

Sidebar Elements

The 248-room Navy Gateway Inns & Suites at the Brunswick Naval Air Station was built in 2004. The Navy is giving up the property to the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority this May.

Employees Ben Matthews, of Harpswell, and Garret Getch, of Bowdoin, are reflected in a lobby mirror as they talk behind the front desk of the hotel at Brunswick Naval Air Station.

Navy hotel, employees face uncertain future

BRUNSWICK — On a chilly spring day, a fire is burning in the lobby fireplace at the Navy Gateway Inn & Suites at the Brunswick Naval Air Station.

Fresh flowers adorn the coffee tables, and the lobby smells faintly of cleaning supplies. Behind the counter, hotel clerks talk quietly, and maids criss-cross the lobby, pushing vacuums and carrying spray bottles.

The only thing missing? Guests.

Sailors, military personnel and other official visitors are slowly draining out of the massive, 248-room hotel, which is set to close in a month when the U.S. Navy transfers it to the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority. The hotel is down to about 80 guests, which is “significantly less than last week,” front desk clerk Michelle Conner said.

The inn was completed in 2004, and since then has been used as transient housing for Navy personnel, including those who were in Brunswick from a few days to a few months while they worked on destroyers at Bath Iron Works.

The last time the hotel was full was last August, Conner said, when the Navy held a survival training school at BNAS.

From the outside, the inn looks no different from a large, public hotel. But there are subtle differences that clearly identify the building as military.

Alongside the standard handicapped parking signs in the parking lot, there are spots reserved for “VIP Level 06 and above.” Other signs instruct guests not to park in certain areas between the hours of “0730 and 1530.”

There are differences inside, too. The inn was designed for sailors who stay at the base for a short period of time, and the majority of the rooms contain two double beds. All the furnishings, from the beds and linens to the paintings on the walls, are owned by the Navy, and much of it will be redistributed to other military hotels when the inn closes in mid-May.

At that time, all of the hotel staff will be looking for work. Many have already left, and only a skeleton crew of 21 employees remain.

Lynn Collins, who cleans and resupplies the hotel rooms, said she’ll be returning to the nursing home in Augusta where she worked before starting at the Navy hotel five years ago.

Landon St. Peter, maintenance supervisor at the hotel, is pursuing a career in political organizing. Starting in May, he said, he’ll be traveling around the state as a field coordinator for the John Birch Society.

Desk clerk Ben Matthews said he doesn’t know what he’ll do.

The Navy offers employees of hotels on decommissioned bases positions at other hotels, Site Director Tammy Bailey said.

“There are opportunities to relocate, if they want to,” she said.

Connor is considering moving to Norfolk, Va., to work at another Navy Gateway Inns & Suites. Although she could apply to work at civilian hotels, she said she feels safer at a Navy inn.

Some of the remaining staff are hoping the next hotel operator will rehire them, but others aren’t banking on it.

“I’m keeping my options open,” Bailey said.

— Emily Guerin