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News Analysis: Brunswick base agency must reconcile region's needs, doubts about Oxford Aviation

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News Analysis: Brunswick base agency must reconcile region's needs, doubts about Oxford Aviation

BRUNSWICK — Architecturally, there are two-car garages more inspiring than Hangar 6 at Brunswick Naval Air Station.

But in the eyes of the organization overseeing the base's civilian redevelopment, the 166,000-square-foot building's significance supersedes its aesthetic.

Base redevelopers have described Hangar 6 as the crown jewel of the 3,200-acre facility. Its three hangar bays can accommodate passenger airliners. Its workshops, locker rooms and administration areas could be filled with hundreds of workers. 

It's an enticing vision, particularly for the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, which sits on the front line of the civilian transition, responsible for replacing the 5,000 jobs and $140 million in income estimated to be lost when BNAS is closed.

As soon as Thursday, Oct. 22, the authority's board of trustees could be asked to vote on a lease agreement with Oxford Aviation, a private aircraft refurbishing company that has promised to fulfill MRRA's Hangar 6 vision with a Brunswick Jet Division.

The two parties have been negotiating for a year, often with the Oxford-based firm taking the unusual step of going public with promises of adding 200 jobs thanks to unconsummated deals with industry titans like Airbus. 

But the company's claims contrast with its record. Oxford Aviation made few friends when its deal to create a Sanford Jet Division collapsed last year after about a $1 million investment by Sanford taxpayers.

The story is similar at the company's headquarters at Oxford County Regional Airport, where it has benefited from about $5 million in public grants, loans and tax incentives, yet has been unable to fulfill job creation promises. The company now finds itself embroiled in a legal dispute with its primary benefactor, Oxford County.

Oxford Aviation has also become involved in a disagreement at Eastern Slope Regional Airport in Fryeburg. According to documents obtained through a Freedom of Access request, Oxford Aviation's landlord, the Eastern Slope Airport Authority, is attempting to evict the company after Oxford allegedly failed to fulfill the requirements of its lease.

In a letter dated Sept. 24, attorneys for the airport authority accused Oxford Aviation President Jim Horowitz of doing the "absolute minimum of what is required" in the lease "to avoid termination." 

"(Horowitz) is functioning essentially as an absentee landlord, and he is driving business away from the airport," asserted Peter Mahlia Jr., the attorney for the airport authority.

Horowitz has denied the existence of the Fryeburg dispute. Meanwhile, his attorneys in a Sept. 25 letter, warned the Eastern Slope authority not to publicly discuss the disagreement.

Such events and a series of newspaper reports scrutinizing Oxford Aviation's dealings are the backdrop for the MRRA's vote on the lease agreement.

Several board members have privately expressed skepticism about ratifying the lease, which could include an $800,000 investment by MRRA.

MRRA Executive Director Steve Levesque and John Richardson, state Department of Economic and Community Development commissioner, have acknowledged there are questions about Oxford Aviation. Both continue to advance the project, while promising MRRA will perform due diligence before there is an agreement with the company.

But speculation swirls about Oxford Aviation's ability to get this close to occupying half of Hangar 6.

Much of the theorizing centers on Richardson's political ambitions. The potential gubernatorial candidate could benefit from a ceremonial announcement of new jobs, even if there is no real guarantee that the achievement will last beyond the ribbon-cutting – just as it didn't after Gov. John Baldacci used Oxford Aviation's Sanford Jet Division groundbreaking as a campaign stop just six days before his re-election in 2007.  

Levesque, meanwhile, undoubtedly feels pressure to create jobs and revenue during an economic downturn made worse locally by the impending base shutdown.

Levesque, the former DECD commissioner under Gov. Angus King, has had past dealings with Oxford Aviation and he recently refuted claims that the company was the recipient of corporate welfare. He argued that public-private partnerships – and their inherent receipt of grants and tax incentives – were one of the few ways Maine can compete with other states in economic development.

That assertion is coupled with MRRA's pressing funding needs. Next summer, MRRA hopes to take over airport operations at BNAS, a job Levesque estimates will cost $650,000 annually.

Levesque hopes tenants at the airport – i.e, Oxford Aviation – will help pay those operating costs. He said this week that MRRA's ability to assume control of the airfield from the Federal Aviation Administration will depend on the agency's ability to prove it can pay for it.

"If we have a tenant ready to move in, it makes it easier to pull the trigger (to take over the airport)," Levesque said. 

Levesque said Oxford Aviation isn't the only potential tenant with which MRRA is negotiating, but he declined to identify others.

However, under the circumstances, MRRA's decision about Oxford Aviation may be its most important one, requiring the board to reconcile doubts about the company with the authority's short-term need for tenants.

It may also say more about whether the authority is willing to gamble its long-term vision for BNAS, and half of the base's crown jewel, than it does about Oxford Aviation.

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or smistler@theforecaster.net