'Wheels Up' campaign hopes to take Brunswick museum to new heights

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BRUNSWICK — In the midst of Brunswick Landing, where a business campus and airport have turned the former U.S. Navy base into a bustling hub of activity, sits a retro remnant of its past.

The former base chapel, a nearly 14,000-square-foot building looks nondescript from outside. But inside it is being transformed into the new and improved Brunswick Naval Museum and Memorial Gardens.

The museum bought the property from the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority in late 2015 for $220,000, after leasing offices in the former church for about a year.

Executive Director John Briley, who oversees the entirely volunteer-run museum and its grounds, has a vision for the facility to be modernized and expanded – with the help of significant donations.

To structure the effort, the museum launched its “Wheels Up” capital campaign in the late summer of 2016 and has since raised $81,000 towards the first phase of a three-part fundraising process.

The goal of the first phase is to raise $300,000 for necessary improvements, to bring parts of the building up to code, and to convert the former main sanctuary into a museum exhibit hall.

“The money has come in slower than we anticipated. A lot of it, I think, is the fact that we did not have the building at first,” Briley said. “Now we have the building, but still have not opened (the premises) as much as we would like to. So I think people are waiting to see if we’re really going to go, and we’re really going to go.”

The organization has been raising funds toward improvement efforts in a variety of ways, including restaurant fundraisers, the most recent of which was scheduled for Feb. 7 at Richard’s Restaurant on Maine Street. People can also purchase inscribed bricks for $150 to honor loved ones who served in the Navy or other branches of the military.

After construction begins, the bricks will be used to build a serpentine wall along the walkway of the new exhibit hall.

The museum also has a membership program, with yearly membership rates ranging from $50 to suggested donations of $1,000 or more for corporations, and a GoFundMe page

Ultimately, Briley said, he’s learned the best way to get funding is to ask for it. Which is part of the reason admission to the museum, currently open on Wednesdays from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. and Sundays from 1 p.m.-4 p.m., is free, with donations welcome.

“If we were to charge admission we might not be making as much as we do now,” Briley said. “I think this is a good way to do it because people do contribute.”

Right now, exhibits are displayed in the large former sanctuary, which has been cleared of pews to make way for tables displaying Navy artifacts, and in two smaller former church offices.

Currently, the large former sanctuary and two smaller former offices have been cleared to make space for exhibits displaying Navy artifacts.

One of the smaller rooms also houses a cockpit simulator, which Briley said was made possible by a $3,500 grant from the Reny Charitable Foundation. Plans to improve the simulator and move it to a new area of the museum are also part of the fundraising plan.

Briley said though the museum virtually doubled its attendance between 2016 and 2017. Visitor numbers are still “pretty slim” with attendance averaging about six people per day during the spring and fall.

When the organization is able to raise a good portion of the money, Briley said volunteers are hopeful construction will be either donated or done at a minimal cost; he said they have gotten “favorable nods” from some companies.

“We’ve got (to) have the basic financial foundation, the base, before (we can ask),” he said. 

Conceptual drawings for the new designs are done, he added, but the next phase is to complete the construction drawings, which he hopes to have done by June.

And, though many features of the old church will be renovated with the new construction, Briley said some will remain, such as the smaller chapel inside the church, in case visitors feel like praying.

He also said though the name of the museum suggests ships, he and volunteers decided to keep it, in case they ever wanted to feature an exhibit on Bath Iron Works and its shipbuilding in the future.

“Generally speaking, the exhibits we will have will pertain to maritime patrol aviation, or particularly the naval air station here at Brunswick, that’s what we’re all about,” he said. “I have not met any airman who served here who didn’t really regard this as a second home as opposed to just another duty station.”

Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or eclemente@theforecaster.net. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente

Executive Director John Briley in the Brunswick Naval Museum exhibit hall, which is housed in what was the main sanctuary of the former Navy chapel. The organization is raising money to renovate the building and build a new exhibit hall. 

One of the museum’s current two exhibit rooms holds a cockpit simulator, which will be improved and moved as part of the fundraising effort. 

The building holds many remnants of the chapel, including the sign for the chaplain’s offices at the museum’s entrance. 

Pews were removed from the sanctuary to make way for exhibits, and are now stored behind an oversized American flag in the main exhibit hall. 

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