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News Analysis: Questions remain for Brunswick base agency after departure of Bailey, Oxford Aviation

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News Analysis: Questions remain for Brunswick base agency after departure of Bailey, Oxford Aviation

BRUNSWICK — Last summer, when The Forecaster began examining Oxford Aviation's bid to expand at Brunswick Naval Air Station, Steve Levesque, the executive director of the agency redeveloping the base, warned a reporter that negative press could kill the deal.

Perhaps Levesque is blessed with the gift of prescience.

After all, it’s hard to imagine that the man overseeing the base’s civilian redevelopment was – to borrow a phrase from a recent newspaper editorial – willfully ignorant of what The Forecaster reports soon revealed.

Oxford's performance history was questionable. Since 1989, it had thrived on public funding but created a fraction of the jobs it promised.

Its failed Sanford Jet Division – nearly identical to a proposed Brunswick expansion – ended with a bitter fallout with Oxford’s would-be investment partner, Oso LLC, after Oso invested $400,000 in the project.

The town of Sanford lost more than $1 million, and its officials were gagged by a hastily drafted non-disparagement agreement in May 2009.

Gov. John Baldacci, who hyped the Sanford project days before the 2006 election, took a hit, too. Not only did the project fail, but in 2008 Baldacci’s Department of Economic and Community Development – then headed by current gubernatorial candidate John Richardson of Brunswick – was formally reprimanded by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development because DECD signed off on Oxford’s job-creation requirements for a $400,000 grant before verifying whether anyone was ever hired.

Those facts are a matter of public record, obtained through several Freedom of Access requests, and documented in a six-month series of reports by The Forecaster. They have not been disputed by Oxford Aviation, its high-profile surrogate F. Lee Bailey or Levesque.

So it was puzzling to hear Levesque echo Bailey’s claim that a new lease deal involving Oxford had collapsed because of skeptical comments made by Town Councilors Margo Knight and Ben Tucker.

In a transparent swipe, Levesque said he hoped Oxford and Bailey’s pullout wouldn’t have an adverse affect on attempts to attract other companies.

It was as if Levesque had never before heard criticism about Oxford.

But he has.

Many of the questions about Oxford have come from the within Levesque’s own Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, the organization that spent 17 months negotiating with the company.

Several MRRA board members have privately told The Forecaster they wouldn’t ratify a deal with Oxford Aviation because of its past performance and because its financial credentials and business plan were insufficient.

Knowing that a deal strictly involving Oxford was dead, Bailey announced earlier this month that he would seek new investors. Oxford and its president, Jim Horowitz, would take a subsidiary role.

But some on the MRRA remained skeptical – of Oxford’s continued involvement and of Bailey’s new venture.

Bailey had repeatedly claimed that bringing Oxford to BNAS would create deals with aviation titans like Airbus SAS. However, MRRA members were never sure if such pronouncements came from actual contract talks, or various grip-and-grin functions in lounges along the aviation industry’s convention circuit.

Even meager evidence of potential deals might have eased MRRA board members’ doubts about the company’s balance sheet and track record.

Similar skepticism now follows Bailey and Levesque’s allegation that Tucker and Knight’s public statements were somehow responsible for scaring off Oxford’s potential investors.

At issue is the Town Council’s willingness to support a $400,000 Community Development Block Grant for an $800,000 paint booth at the base.

The paint booth was originally meant to accommodate Oxford. But Levesque recently switched his pitch, saying the MRRA was “agnostic” about who used the asset. The goal was to make the property more appealing to potential tenants, not just Oxford or Bailey, he said.

If that's true, that means the MRRA still needs the paint booth, regardless of whether Bailey and Oxford are involved.

Levesque and Bailey’s allegations also ignore MRRA’s statutory ability to seek other grants or funding for the paint booth – an option that perhaps would have soothed Bailey’s rattled investors.

Of course, nobody knows if Bailey’s investors really backed out because two of nine Brunswick town councilors went public with concerns also shared by their constituents and MRRA board members.

What is clear is Levesque’s close relationship with Oxford Aviation began when he was Gov. Angus King’s DECD commissioner.

In 1996, Levesque signed off on a grant that had Oxford promise to create 50 jobs to bring its workforce to 80 employees. According to published reports, the company fell well short of that goal, creating about a dozen positions.

According to DECD documents, Oxford’s job requirements were forgiven because of its remote location and a poor economy had hampered its growth schedule – a puzzling explanation since those same factors were used to justify the grant funding.

Last fall, while assuring a reporter that Oxford Aviation’s repeated ability to secure public funding had nothing to do with its political connections, Levesque said the MRRA’s pursuit of a lease deal was based on a market opportunity.

Three weeks ago, he repeated that assertion, saying the authority was in contact with other companies that performed the same work as Oxford.

If that’s true, why is the person charged with bringing those companies to Brunswick so quick to blame Oxford and Bailey’s departure on an anti-business culture – a reputation that can arguably become self-fulfilling if repeated often enough?

It’s also unclear why Levesque advocated for the one firm whose performance he predicted last summer would not withstand public scrutiny.

Steve Mistler can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or smistler@theforecaster.net