Bowdoin in a Changing Brunswick

by Edgar Allen Beem

Community relations become more intimate as Brunswick faces major changes.

The Town of Brunswick is the State of Maine in microcosm. Once a farming and fishing community, Brunswick evolved into a mill town in the 19th century as brick, textile, and shoe factories sprouted along the Androscoggin to take advantage of the hydropower provided by the river's falls. The U.S. Navy arrived during World War II and transformed the farms and barrens on the edge of town into Naval Air Station Brunswick (NASB). Manufacturing jobs disappeared, and the mills and factories that had once hummed shut down. Through all of these changes, of course, Brunswick has also been home to Bowdoin College. Now, Brunswick is in the midst of another wave of changes.

One of the victims of the latest round of military base closures, NASB is slated to close in 2011. Downtown Brunswick, which has survived the advent of big box retailers out at Cook's Corner by carving out a creative niche for itself, is the focus of a dramatic redevelopment plan. And, too, Brunswick finds itself becoming something of a retirement mecca, with Bowdoin - along with two hospitals, a thriving arts community, and a beautiful physical environment - as one of the main attractions for older residents. As the town enters this uncertain period of social and economic flux, Bowdoin has stepped up to take a role in shaping the future of Brunswick.

"Bowdoin is actively involved in thinking with the community and is actively participating in decisions about it," says Theo Holtwijk, Brunswick's director of planning and development, pointing out that Bowdoin officials now sit on many of the town's key planning committees. "The College understands that this community helps make the college successful, and the community recognizes that Bowdoin is an essential element in what makes the community successful."

Redeveloping the Naval Air Station

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Brunswick Naval Air Station and airstrips.

The ax fell on NASB on August 24, 2005, when the Department of Defense's Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission voted 7-2 to close the air base. The Department of Defense had not recommended the closure, but the BRAC Commission felt that, with the end of the Cold War, the base's submarine surveillance mission was no longer relevant.

The base closure will mean the losses of 4,800 military and civilian jobs in the area, an annual payroll of close to $150 million, along with the $300 million a year NASB pumps into the local community. On the brighter side, when the air station is decommissioned in five years, most of the tax-exempt 3,200-acre base will be available for private redevelopment and some 750 units of off-base military housing will come on the open market.

Speculative ideas about the future use of the air base have ranged from a casino resort to a regional airport, a community garden and horticultural park to a technology center, but the big job of re-imagining NASB falls to a 13-member Brunswick Local Redevelopment Authority (LRA) charged with creating a master reuse plan by September, 2007.

"What we do over the next year is going to set the tone for the next 50 to 100 years in this town and this region," says Steven H. Levesque, executive director of the Brunswick Local Redevelopment Authority.

The Brunswick LRA offices are located on the fourth floor of Fort Andross, the old downtown mill complex that was itself successfully redeveloped to house professional offices, artists' studios, insurance companies, and environmental organizations. When LRA director Steve Levesque looks out toward NASB, he envisions a "technology center of excellence," a mixed use research and manufacturing complex, perhaps based around existing local expertise such as boat building, wood composite manufacturing or aeronautics.

"You're not going to create a technology center of excellence without a strong educational base. Education is the base of our economy," says Levesque. "I think it can be an opportunity for Bowdoin to see how they could play a role here. Does Bowdoin want to have a bigger role in the growth of the region?"

S. Catherine (Palevsky) Longley '76, Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration and Treasurer, is Bowdoin's representative on the Brunswick LRA.

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P-3 Orion aircraft in training exercises off the Maine coast.

While Katy Longley says it is too early in the process to know what part, if any, the College might play in the ultimate base redevelopment, she does admit, "There is a lot of pressure on us to help shape the outcome."

Before the LRA knows exactly what it will be planning for, federal agencies were given an opportunity to submit requests for Brunswick Naval Air Station properties. The Army and Air National Guards, Coast Guard, Federal Aviation Administration and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (on behalf of the Penobscot Indian Nation) all requested sites on the base. If an airfield is part of NASB's future, that could preclude some other uses.

While local residents have grown used to propeller-driven P-3 Orion sub-chasers lumbering in over the treetops, the potential for noisier jet air traffic exists if NASB remains a military airfield or becomes a regional airport. To that end, the LRA is commissioning a six-month, $200,000 aviation reuse study for the base.

"It's to our advantage to have a robust local economy," says William A. Torrey, Bowdoin's Senior Vice President for Planning and Administration and Chief Development Officer. "We would be concerned about an airfield. If they do decide to have an airport with jet traffic, we would be very concerned about quality of life."

So, for the time being, LRA member Katy Longley says the College "would consider acquiring property opportunistically for future generations."

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Another view of NSAB and airstrips.

Bowdoin lost 200 acres when the federal government took what had previously been part of the Brunswick Town Commons by eminent domain to build NASB in the 1940s. President Mills has sent a letter stating that the College might like to acquire some air station property for use as athletic fields in the near term with the long-range possibility of developing a residential and/or academic presence there, but, both figuratively and literally, the future of NASB is up in the air at the moment. The uncertainty worries a lot of local residents, but some folks welcome the potential for returning base property to the tax rolls and the prospect of hundreds of military houses coming on the market and providing affordable housing options in a tight housing market.

Paul Clark, broker with Morton Real Estate just across Maine Street from the campus, is one of the optimists.

"With 3,000 acres in the center of everything suddenly becoming available, a spot in downtown about to be redeveloped, coupled with demographics that already make Brunswick very attractive," he insists, "I have to believe that what's going to happen is only going to be good and pretty exciting."

Developing Maine Street Station

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View of Maine Street looking toward the First Parish Church on the hill leading to the College.

"As a community, we're still shell-shocked," says Brunswick native and former town councilor Barbara Desmarais. "Even though I know it's going to close, I still have trouble coming to terms with what it's going to mean."

Barbara Desmarais' mother's family has lived in Brunswick since 1719. The old family farm lies beneath the NASB tarmac. Desmarais never saw the farm, but she has seen the major changes in downtown Brunswick since the 1960s. The mills on the river closed. Passenger rail service ended. Mill tenements were razed when Route One was relocated along the river. The old town hall was torn down. And Dutch elm disease claimed the Maine Street canopy.

A returning native or an old Bowdoin alum, however, would still recognize downtown Brunswick by its wide Maine Street, grassy mall and historic Park Row, all leading uphill to the College. With shopping malls and big box retailers located just north of the village in Topsham and west of town at Cook's Corner, one might expect downtown Brunswick to have fallen on hard times, but Maine Street is as busy as ever. Brunswick serves as a market center for surrounding communities, and downtown merchants have created an alternative niche for themselves by competing on quality and service.

The heart of downtown Brunswick consists of independent, locally-owned businesses such as Bull Moose Music, Gulf of Maine Books, Eveningstar Cinema, Wild Oats Bakery and Icon Contemporary Art gallery interspersed with great little boutiques, bistros and cafes.

The only fallow ground in downtown lies along the railroad tracks that run beside the Hannaford Supermarket. Now, that prime downtown site is slated for redevelopment.

"That property is the gateway between the downtown, the neighborhoods and the college," says Barbara Desmarais, who chairs the Maine Street Station Steering Committee. "It connects all three areas of town and it always has."

Maine Street Station is being redeveloped in anticipation of the return of passenger rail service to Brunswick. While the arrival of passenger trains has been stalled by the cost of upgrading track and bridges, the Town of Brunswick began the process of revitalizing the area in 1998 when it purchased 5.8 acres along the railroad tracks with the understanding that Bowdoin would buy two acres to construct the $5 million McLellan Building that now houses some of the College's administrative offices, as well as studio art space and community meeting space.

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Bull Moose Music; just one of many locally-owned businesses along Maine Street.

In the fall of 2004, the Maine Street Station Steering Committee began working on a redevelopment master plan that includes not only the original 5.8 acres of town land but also adjacent parcels owned by the Maine Department of Transportation and Brooks Feed and Farm. The Maine Street Station master plan, presented in April, envisions the almost 23-acre trackside neighborhood between Maine and Spring Streets brought to life with a festive mix of 25 new commercial, retail, and residential structures including a train station, cinema complex, parking garage, hotel, office space, shops, and apartments.

Bill Torrey, who represents Bowdoin on the Maine Street Station Steering Committee, says the College sees the project as a civic amenity for both the Brunswick and Bowdoin communities.

"We're primarily interested in rail service and, beyond that, retail and residential assets," says Torrey. "We thought it made sense for our faculty, students, and staff to have more retail opportunities and some reasonably affordable housing."

The Maine Street Station development scheme is a conceptual plan only, but steering committee chair Barbara Desmarais, anticipating Brunswick Town Council approval, is optimistic that a private developer can be found for the project this summer.

"A year from now," she says, "ground should be broken."

A Draw for Retirees

As town and college officials plan for the demise of Naval Air Station Brunswick and the birth of Maine Street Station, Brunswick finds itself increasingly attractive to a new generation of younger, more active retirees.

Brunswick's population has remained steadily around 22,000 in recent years, but recent U.S. Census figures revealed that Maine was the fifth fastest growing state in the nation (behind Nevada, Arizona, Florida and Idaho) in terms of the number of people per thousand who moved into the state between 2000 and 2004, and town officials are pretty certain those new arrivals are older residents.

"We don't have the numbers yet," says Brunswick Director of Economic Development Mathew Eddy, "but, intuitively, if you watch the housing market, you see that they are going to pre-retirees and retirees."

Retirement communities such as The Highlands in Topsham and Thornton Oaks in Brunswick are frequently cited as signs of the area's desirability, and both communities regularly tout their proximity and access to Bowdoin College as a major asset.

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One of the several stately homes adjacent to Maine Street's Park Row.

"People are not going to the South as much anymore," says Marlise Swartz, director of marketing for Thornton Oaks, an independent living complex of some 200 residents that opened in 1990. "College communities are a big attraction. Culture and learning have become very important to these people."

In 2000 and again in 2005, Money magazine featured Brunswick as one of the best places in the country to retire, both times citing Bowdoin as a primary drawing card. And, indeed, the Thornton Oaks Web site makes the most of what the College has to offer, promoting the Bowdoin International Music Festival and Maine State Music Theatre as well as access to Farley Field House and Greason Pool and the opportunity to audit classes with faculty permission.

"We have some residents," confesses Swartz, "who ought to be full-time students."

Swartz also reports that Thornton Oaks residents regularly attend Bowdoin Business Breakfasts and participate in Mid-Coast Hospital's Running Start adult fitness program that operates three days a week at Bowdoin.

Residents of planned retirement communities, however, are not the only senior citizens who make use of the College's facilities. The Association of Bowdoin Friends, established in 1984, currently has 1,200 members, the vast majority of whom are either retired or of retirement age. For $40 a year, Bowdoin Friends receive library borrowing privileges, discounts at the book store, museum gift shop and sporting events, and subscriptions to the biweekly "Bowdoin Bulletin" and Bowdoin magazine.

A Bowdoin Friends membership is also required to purchase a facilities pass which entitles members to use the College's track, swimming pool, tennis and squash courts, and fitness center.

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The area's retirees enjoying a concert in the park.

Bowdoin Athletic Director Jeff Ward says the College is happy to make its athletic facilities available to the public any time they are not in use by students.

"If we can do it, I want to do it," says Ward. "If we can help, I want to help."

To that end, Jeff Ward also chairs the Brunswick Recreation Committee, not as a representative of Bowdoin, he hastens to add, but as a Brunswick resident with expertise to lend.

Having previously served as an athletic administrator at Brown, Columbia, West Point, and Dartmouth, Ward finds that "Bowdoin is much more generous with its resources, both athletic and in general."

Roy Heely '51, who retired to Brunswick in 1990 from his native New Jersey, now chairs the Bowdoin Friends annual fund drive. He has seen the College's generosity bear fruit in the community.

"The Bowdoin Friends is the College's way of reaching out to the community," says Heely. "I'd say relations between the College and the town are very good and better than they have ever been."

Sigurd Knudsen '65, executive director of People Plus, a senior and teen center located just off campus in the former St. Charles Church, believes both the College and the community benefit by increased interaction.

"A college should not be an isolated place on a hill," says Knudsen. "It needs to be part of the fabric of the community in which it lives."

Becoming a Good Neighbor

As both Brunswick and Bowdoin change and grow, a symbiotic relationship has developed that did not always exist. Bill Torrey dates the improvement in town-gown relations to the 1990s when, during a period of unprecedented growth and expansion at Bowdoin, the College frequently found itself without "a seat at the table" when it came to local zoning ordinances and, as a result, sometimes found itself at odds with its neighbors.

“A college should not be an isolated place on a hill. It needs to be part of the fabric of the community in which it lives.”

"We are, as a college, facing almost what an urban campus would face," Torrey explains. "We have residential neighborhoods on three sides of us and the Bowdoin Pines on the other. Every time we do something with construction and expansion, it affects our neighbors. We try to manage the impact, but it's important for us to expand with respect for our neighbors."

The local consensus seems to be that Bowdoin has become a much more responsive and involved neighbor in recent years, but sociology professor Nancy Riley is having her social research methodology students test that hypothesis by conducting a survey of local attitudes toward the College. In the fall, Riley plans to have her students begin an on-going study of the impact of the closing Brunswick Naval Air Station.

In terms of student involvement with the local community, some 70 percent of Bowdoin students are involved in community service projects, often as tutors, mentors, and interns. And service learning opportunities abound. People Plus, for instance, currently has a Bowdoin student intern surveying area business to see how "elder-friendly" they are in a graying Brunswick.

Retaining a Sense of Place

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Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Brunswick is that its sense of place has not been swept away by centuries of change. Through the more than 200 years that Bowdoin College has been its centerpiece, the rise and fall of the mills, 70 years of occupation by the military, decades of suburban sprawl and the recent influx of retirees, Brunswick has managed to retain its small town identity.

That identity is expressed in quiet residential side streets, neighborhood schools, and ample playing fields. It's seen in old, established, utilitarian businesses such as Pennell's Apparel, Frosty's Donuts, Day's News, Danny's hot dog stand, the pure Americana of the Fat Boy Drive-In restaurant at Cook's Corner. It's found in the fact that the Brunswick Mall is not a shopping center but a downtown park where folks gather to skate in the winter and attend band concerts and the farmers market in the summer.

"Brunswick is uniquely blessed to have many livable neighborhoods within a very livable community," wrote Town Councilor Jackie Sartoris in a March 15, 2005, guest column in the Brunswick Times Record. "Older neighborhoods in Brunswick tend to be fairly densely developed, generally with smaller homes, located relatively close to the downtown area."

Jackie Sartoris has served six years on the Town Council since moving to Brunswick 13 years ago when her husband, Professor Scott Sehon, joined Bowdoin's philosophy department. She has come to love Brunswick, so today, in an effort to preserve the charm of her adopted hometown, she is a member of the committee charged with updating the town's comprehensive plan.

"The professional relationship between the town and the College is excellent, better than it has ever been," confirm Sartoris, noting that Del Wilson, Bowdoin's Director of Facilities Administration, serves on the comprehensive plan update committee with her.

Ultimately, the municipal challenges that concern Jackie Sartoris as a Brunswick Town Councilor - combating sprawl, providing property tax relief while adequately funding public education, keeping housing costs low enough so that teachers, police officers and firefighters can afford to live in town - are problems that now face virtually every coastal Maine community.

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Aerial view of Maine Street looking toward the mill buildings and the Androscoggin River.

Bill Torrey says he sees the same forces at work in Bath, where he lives.

"Brunswick has retained its Maine character," says Torrey. "Traditionally, Mainers are not dependent on institutions or industries to maintain their identity. Brunswick's never thought of itself as simply a college town. For the last 70 years, it's been somewhat a Navy town. But it has always been very much a Maine town."

Brunswick faces now another period of change, and the community that forms in the wakes of those adjustments will be as different from the current one as today's is from the mill town of generations past. But, as different as it may look years from now, both that Maine character - pragmatic, hardworking, and self-reliant - and Bowdoin College will remain in the middle of it all.