'Same partners … same business': Does Oxford Aviation taint effort to recast Brunswick base proposal?

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BRUNSWICK — Officials guiding the reuse of Brunswick Naval Air Station confirmed last week that Oxford Aviation will take a subsidiary role in plans to redevelop the base, leaving skeptics wondering if the new proposal is simply a coat of paint for the original plan.

Last week, Steve Levesque, executive director of the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, said the private aircraft refurbishing firm would be part of a new lease application from a group of investors formed by high-profile attorney F. Lee Bailey.

Bailey is a friend and business partner of Oxford Aviation President Jim Horowitz. The attorney has been the company’s chief advocate during 15 months of negotiations with MRRA, and has said the company’s expansion to Brunswick would create at least 200 jobs and trigger deals with industry titans like Airbus SAS of France.

Bailey has tempered those claims over the last six months, following reports about Oxford Aviation’s failed Sanford expansion, its rocky relationship with its current landlords and the company’s questionable performance on job-creation requirements attached to public funding.

Reframing Oxford’s role could be critical in the authority’s attempt to generate Town Council support for a grant that would help pay for an $800,000 paint booth – an asset originally sought to accommodate Oxford.

During a Jan. 28 event in Brunswick, Levesque attempted to drum up support for the grant, telling town councilors that the paint booth would be an asset used by MRRA to boost base marketability and lure tenants. He also said Bailey’s new organization would include new financial partners and a revised business plan.

Councilor Ben Tucker, who has repeatedly said he wouldn’t support the grant if Oxford is the beneficiary, remained unconvinced.

“(Levesque) told us that Oxford Aviation is doing some kind of reorganization, that there will be a ‘new entity’ that MRRA might deal with,” Tucker said in an e-mail. “I’m skeptical, and I’m also puzzled why MRRA seems so obsessed with the concept of a paint booth to lease to one particular company. (MRRA Chairman) Art Mayo and Steve Levesque say the company will have a different name, but I won’t support a (grant) request just because they come up with a fancy new alias.”

Councilor Margo Knight shared Tucker’s concerns.

“I’m very skeptical, especially as (Oxford) moves across the state seemingly trying out different towns for the best deal,” Knight said, referring to Oxford’s previous attempts to expand in Sanford, Waterville and Auburn.

Knight said she is thus far unmoved by Bailey’s proposal to bring in new partners. 

“I’ve seen that in town business before, where new people are brought in to carry the water for the old principals,” she said. “But it’s the same partners, it’s the same business.”

Other councilors have previously echoed that skepticism. However, it’s unclear where they stand on the paint booth grant or how it could be linked to a new proposal with few details.

Several councilors did not return calls seeking comment or could not be reached. Others said they would wait until MRRA presents its plan.

Bailey did not return calls seeking comment. Horowitz, in a recent televised interview, said only that he’ll take a back-seat role in the new company.

Meanwhile, questions remain about the failure of MRRA and Oxford to reach an agreement after 15 months of negotiations and much initial fanfare.

The company’s Brunswick expansion at one time appeared inevitable. In February 2009, Oxford held a highly publicized job fair in Brunswick. Bailey soon became a fixture at MRRA board meetings, claiming Oxford was poised for prosperity.

In September, Levesque told MRRA’s board of directors that he expected a lease vote in November. 

Since then, MRRA officials have claimed they were completing due diligence on Oxford.

Levesque and MRRA Chairman Art Mayo refused to comment publicly last week for a report on the status of the agreement, or rumors about the new proposal. Both said only that only that MRRA members had requested additional information from Oxford – presumably financial data – and that the company had submitted it.

But Levesque went public with the new proposal shortly thereafter – a move that suggests MRRA is attempting to manage its relationship with Oxford amid concerns about the the company and the sudden appearance of a revised plan after lengthy negotiations failed to survive public scrutiny.

On Jan. 28, Levesque maintained that the aircraft refurbishing industry presented a key opportunity in the redevelopment of BNAS. He said the company performed a service done by few others in the Northeast.

“It’s our position that this is an untapped market and opportunity in the region,” he said.

The Town Council is expected to review MRRA’s Community Development Block Grant request at a meeting this month.

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or [email protected]