Editorial: Kestrel provides a lesson for Maine, Brunswick

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Reporter Emily Guerin’s examination this week of the background behind the aborted attempt by Kestrel Aircraft Co. to establish a manufacturing facility at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station asks two important questions:

Is Kestrel Aircraft the kind of company the state, and the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, should have been trying to attract, and should officials have done a better job scrutinizing the company before seeming to fall head over heels in love with it?

Guerin’s report suggests the answer to the former is probably not, while the response to the latter is yes, definitely.

It’s now clear that while Kestrel mastermind Alan Klapmeier may have been serious about building planes at what is now Brunswick Landing, he was never fully invested in Maine – at least, not invested enough to warrant the kind of red-carpet display the state and MRRA put on when Kestrel’s plan was publicly announced.

For reasons that still remain unclear – and because Klapmeier, the so-called “Steve Jobs of aviation,” won’t say – Kestrel expected five times as much in federal New Market Tax Credits than Coastal Enterprises Inc. of Wiscasset was willing to seek for the company. When the funding fell short of the expectations, Klapmeier started looking elsewhere.

Kestrel never said that in so many words, but the writing was on the wall and it was hinted at in emails. The Department of Economic and Community Development and MRRA either failed to see it, failed to understand it, or were so hypnotized by Klapmeier’s spiel and his promise of hundreds of jobs that they just ignored it.

And they weren’t the only ones. Their over-confidence was contagious; the press lapped up what Kestrel, MRRA and the state government dished out. The Forecaster even suggested in a July 2010 editorial that MRRA should be congratulated for bringing Kestrel to Maine.

So, yes, more intense scrutiny of Kestrel was in order. Officials in Maine should have been skeptical that private investors were not part of the company’s start-up plan. And when Klapmeier started complaining about CEI and a lack of funding, it should have been seen as a red flag.

For MRRA in particular, the over-the-top promotion of the deal, combined with an insufficient real-world assessment of the company’s financial situation, now seems much too similar to the way a prior deal with Oxford Aviation was almost pushed through. It’s time for MRRA to take off the rose-colored glasses when it comes to companies that make too-good-to-be-true promises for Brunswick Landing.

Hitting singles and doubles may not be as headline-grabbing as hitting home runs, but it can be more productive in the long run – and MRRA has shown it doesn’t have to swing for the fences. Smaller operations like Molnycke Health Care’s medical foam business, and the ABS ship-modeling center – both arms of established, credible multi-nationals that don’t have cash-flow problems and didn’t seek financial incentives – are the success stories that will do the most for Brunswick Landing and Mid-Coast Maine. Perhaps even Kestrel’s airplane repair-and-maintenance business will contribute.

For states with deeper pockets and more diverse economies, companies like Kestrel Aircraft and the risks they require may be a good fit. But Maine has to be much more skeptical when the the “next Steve Jobs” of something comes calling with a promise of blue-sky jobs and economic development.