Topsham commissary, Brunswick exchange to close in October

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TOPSHAM — The low-cost commissary and exchange store for residents with military ties will close in October, despite efforts by Maine’s Congressional delegation to keep them open.

The commissary, at the Topsham Navy Annex, and the former Brunswick Naval Air Station exchange are being shut down as part of the BNAS closure process.

Republican U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and Democratic U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Michael Michaud have worked to keep both facilities open beyond their originally scheduled March closure.

Wednesday, in a letter to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Snowe, Collins, Michaud and Pingree insisted the commissary should remain open and urged the Pentagon to reconsider the decision. In a press release issued Tuesday, the delegation criticized the decision by the U.S. Department of Defense.

“This is extremely disappointing news for the servicemen and women, military retirees and families who live in the Brunswick-Topsham region,” Snowe said. “That these patriots must lose a key resource in their community during these difficult economic times is ill-informed and inexcusable.

“Worse yet,” she continued, “today’s decision was announced without a single response by the Department of Defense to any of three letters sent by members of the delegation since May urging a cooperative dialogue to identify ways to keep the store open. I intend to continue to fight tooth and nail to convince the Secretary of Defense to reverse this decision.”

Cynthia Smith, a spokeswoman for the Defense Department, declined to comment on correspondence between members of Congress and department officials.

Collins called it “unacceptable that the Defense Department reached this decision without responding to our earlier inquiries and our repeated attempts to urge DOD to pursue alternatives that would preserve the commissary. Thousands of military men and women, veterans, retirees and their families rely on the Topsham-Brunswick Commissary and they deserve to have continued access to all the benefits that they have earned.”

Daniel Sclater, chief of the Defense Commissary Agency’s office in Washington, D.C., said the commissary services the military population – active duty, reservists, National Guard and retired personnel. As part of their military compensation package, those people have been able to buy grocery and household items at cost, which usually means a savings of about 32 percent, he said.

“This was a tough decision for the (Defense Department),” said Sclater, who added that the decision followed a comprehensive review and analysis. “We realize the needs of the service members, their families, the retirees, everybody remaining in that area. But we also have fiscal responsibilities in the department, to make the best use of the dollars.”

According to information from the Navy, provided by Collins spokesman Kevin Kelley, the commissary employs 27 government personnel and 37 contractor or other personnel. The commissary closure is expected to save the Defense Department an annual $2.1 million.

The commissary and exchange buildings are to be turned over to the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, which is charged with redeveloping the former Navy base.

MRRA Executive Director Steve Levesque said the authority plans commercial uses – retail, offices or light manufacturing – for both buildings.

“We haven’t really marketed them, because the commissary and exchange were still there, and we weren’t clear as to what the final resolution would be,” Levesque said. “Now they’ll just be part of our available inventory.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.