BRUNSWICK — The taxiway and twin runways that cover more than 700 acres here were empty on Wednesday. The only sound was wind whipping across the vast open space; the only human presence was crew of electricians fixing lights at a distant windsock.
But standing in front of the vacant flight tower, Steve Levesque could imagine the sound of corporate jets landing, and could envision student pilots waiting to fly on the taxiway.
“We’d like to see up to 80 takeoffs and landings a day,” he said.
Executive director of the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, Levesque and his team have been completing tasks to prepare a military airfield for civilian life.
Saturday was opening day at Maine’s newest airport — Brunswick Executive Airport. Officials and politicians attended a public celebration at 1 p.m., and watched the landing of the first private airplanes.
It was a high-profile transition from BNAS — Brunswick Naval Air Station — to BXM, the Federal Aviation Administration’s new identifier for Brunswick Executive Airport.
It will give southern Maine an unprecedented aviation resource: a complex with 8,000-foot runways, 650,000 square feet of hangar space and varied offices that are part of an evolving, high-tech business and education campus called Brunswick Landing. Consultants working for the redevelopment authority say it would cost $2 billion to build a similar complex today.
Brunswick Executive Airport is within commuting distance of one-third of the state’s population and within reach of more than one-fifth of the country’s general aviation aircraft.
As it turns out, the airport’s scale and its location are both an asset and a challenge.
The giant, well-maintained facility offers incredible potential for attracting business. But the complex also must generate enough revenue to maintain the long runways, 103 acres of taxiways and parking, and a trio of hangar buildings that could hold multiple football fields. The current operating costs are estimated at $750,000 a year.
Brunswick is an easy drive to Maine’s population centers. But because it’s only 30 miles from Portland International Jetport, the airfield is too close to host scheduled, commercial air service.
That mean BXM must position itself as a general aviation airport, but with a difference. More than an airport, it’s an industrial site that can host businesses that make and repair aircraft, as well as other aviation service providers.
That effort is off to an encouraging start. Start-up airplane maker Kestrel Aircraft Co. is setting up shop to build a small passenger plane. A prototype of the carbon composite, turbo prop aircraft now stands in Hangar 6.
Eventually, Kestrel hopes to have 300 workers, which would contribute to a broader goal of the redevelopment authority – replacing the jobs and economic activity that flew away with the Navy. Levesque said he has signed leases with businesses that can fill 600 of the 700 civilian jobs at the former Navy base.
The next step is to expand area business activity to generate $140 million a year, equal to the payroll when 5,000 people were involved with the base. The long-term goal is a complete redevelopment of the base, a process that may take decades.
For now, though, the redevelopment authority is focused on getting out the word about the new airport, through trade associations, industry gatherings and the FAA network. It will hold a Business Aviation Expo in August, in conjunction with the Great State of Maine Air Show.
Officials also are lobbying for passage of a bill in the Legislature to repeal a hefty tax on visiting aircraft that remain in the state more than 20 days. That’s essential for maintenance companies to consider Maine, and for attracting more pilots.
“Right now, Maine has a black flag over it for aircraft owners,” Levesque said.
Brunswick is being watched closely by other general aviation airports in the area. The redevelopment is good for Maine’s aviation industry in general, they say, but a new airfield also presents another option for fuel sales and hangar leases.
“It brings the importance of aviation to the forefront, but it’s also competition for us,” said Jeff Northgraves, manager at the Knox County Regional Airport in Owls Head.
Knox County services private jets for pilots with vacation homes in the Midcoast, and Northgraves speculates that some who live closer to Brunswick might switch. The long runways at BXM also can let larger planes take on more fuel, he noted.
Brunswick also may present some competition for nearby Wiscasset Municipal Airport, where existing hangars are full.
“Hangars are a general aviation airport’s best friend because they bring in revenue,” said Ervin Deck, the airport manager.
Wiscasset is putting aside revenue to reconstruct its 3,400-foot runway, a project that Deck says will cost $1 million. And although it is home to 50 planes year-round and 80 in the summer, the airport isn’t self-supporting.
At Brunswick, Levesque said lease payment from hangars, office buildings and fuel sales should cover operating costs, which now are being paid in part from a line of credit with the state’s transportation department.
“We’re probably going to operate in the red for a couple of years,” he said.
Payments from commercial air service could offset operating costs. Levesque is often asked if Brunswick could become an alternative to Portland, just as Manchester, N.H., became a reliever airport for Boston.
Consultants who have studied Brunswick and area airports say that’s unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. Portland doesn’t suffer from the congestion that Boston does, and there’s not enough demand for new air service so close to Portland. BXM also lacks direct highway access and a terminal building. And it doesn’t qualify for federal subsidies for commuter airline services, as Knox County and Augusta do.
Paul Bradbury, the jetport manager in Portland, said BXM will complement the state’s largest airport, not compete with it. Brunswick, he said, is more likely to follow the path of the former Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire, and capitalize on its abundant land and industrial development potential.
“They can offer what Portland can’t,” Bradbury said.