April 09, 2020

HOMETOWN: LIMESTONE Aroostook County town still struggling to rebound from Air Force base’s closure

It’s 7 a.m. and all’s quiet along Main Street.

A school bus lumbering past the town office on a recent weekday is about the only traffic in sight. Down at Kelley’s Restaurant the morning crowd has come and gone.

In the heart of town, storefront windows are dotted with black and red “For Sale” signs and nearby buildings show signs of their slow deterioration in the morning sun.

This is downtown Limestone, which in its heyday boasted a movie theater, drugstores and a bevy of shops that catered to the farming community. Now fewer than a dozen Main Street businesses remain open.

The town still has its school, which shares facilities with the Maine School of Science and Mathematics. It also has the Loring Commerce Centre, the only entity bringing new jobs to town. But with local farmers calling it quits because of high operating costs, and the population sliding from 9,922 in 1990 to 2,346 in 2000, this town’s future is unclear.

Some say it’s dying. Others say it’s being reborn. The town is full of hope or despair, depending on who you ask. Either way, there’s a general sense that everyone is waiting for something that will jump-start the economy and allow Limestone to thrive.

Rise and fall of a town

Established in 1869, Limestone grew because it offered thousands of acres of farmland and the right climate for potatoes. That attracted farmers and created a thriving industry that helped Main Street flourish. By the 1940s, Limestone had churches, schools, a post office, a library, and enough downtown businesses to sustain itself.

A decade later, the creation of Loring Air Force Base forced local landowners to give up about 10,000 acres of farmland. In 40 years, the B-52 base grew into a small city with its own stores, school, fire and police departments, nightclubs and 1,000-seat movie theater.

While the population of Limestone proper surged from 2,427 in 1950 to more than 9,900 in 2000, the town itself became a bedroom community. As the potato industry evolved, more people bought cars and traveled to shop elsewhere. Local business began to dwindle.

On Sept. 30, 1994, Loring Air Force Base closed. About 4,500 military personnel and their families moved away and 1,100 civilian employees lost their jobs. The closure took a 20 percent chunk out of the local economy. Regional leaders created the Loring Development Authority to locate tenants who would use the facilities and create new jobs.

It has been 12 years since the closure, but even with 23 businesses employing 1,315 people on the property, now known as the Loring Commerce Centre, some locals say it’s not enough to save the town.

At a Main Street gas station, a handful of local men gather for their morning cup of coffee. Vince Bell, 59, says he was born and raised in Limestone, but it’s really his children who have jobs at the commerce center who are keeping him here.

Bell thinks Limestone is in trouble.

“We’re just waiting for the funeral,” Bell said. “It’s dying.”

Some observers say the town’s economic downturn had started even before Loring closed, while others say the loss of the Loring military personnel, and their spending, just hasn’t been replaced and has doomed the town.

Either way, Bell says the town needs new businesses. It needs people and industry. It needs something to drive it. But he’s not sure what that is.

Rebuilding an economy

Head west out of town and take a left onto West Gate Road and you’ve found the Loring Commerce Centre, an industrial park of sorts run by the Loring Development Authority. Carl Flora has served as CEO since 2004, the year it received all 2.8 million square feet of former base properties by deed from the federal government. Flora said recently that about 1.6 million square feet is in use and generating about $60 million for the Maine economy.

The LDA has attracted more than 20 enterprises to the commerce center, including a military accounting operation which plans to expand to 660 jobs by 2008, an aviation enterprise, a call center, and a Job Corps site. The jobs created here have more than replaced the civilian jobs lost when the base closed.

The LDA is working to fill the last third of the facilities and encourages new construction. With enterprise expansions and small deals, Flora said the LDA could see between 1,700 and 1,800 jobs at the center in the future. Additional successes with major industrial tenants could push that number as high as 2,200, but Flora says it’s a guessing game until contracts are signed.

“We’re on track with where we’d hoped we’d be,” Flora said of the LDA’s progress.

He says the LDA already has done the most important thing it can do – it has shown that businesses can thrive here.

The heart of the community

Back in town, there’s plenty of activity at the Limestone Community School. Built in the 1970s for the town’s and base’s secondary education students, the school is the site for most community events and is the home of the Maine School of Science and Mathematics.

When the base closed, town residents lost 1,100 students and 130 employees. In the early 1990s, a townwide “visioning” process looked at ways to keep the state-of-the-art facility open, resulting in the statewide magnet school, which has 130 students this year.

Principal Ryan Enman said consolidating into a pre-kindergarten to grade 12 school and converting the old elementary building into dormitories has helped the school department keep the community school operational. Right now, that’s a local priority.

“It’s the community center,” Enman said. “This is the only place in town.”

Down the hall from Enman’s office, MSSM is in session, training high school students to be researchers, scientists and mathematicians.

In Susan Buraceski’s biology class, students divide cells by hand – using beads, magnets and a little thread to illustrate mitosis.

“These kids took the initiative,” Buraceski said. “They used the thread to actually pull it [the imaginary cell] apart. They want to go one step further.”

But that’s what attracts these advanced students to the rural town.

David Witmer, 17, of Topsham is working alongside doctorate-level scientists at The Jackson Laboratory as part of his course work.

“I think it’s been a valuable experience for me to come up here,” Witmer said. “MSSM is a great place. The opportunities it offers students are incredible.”

Executive Director Walt Warner said word about MSSM is picking up around the state and he expects it to reach an enrollment of 150 by 2008.

But to keep building, Warner thinks the schools and the town need to work together. MSSM is working with the Limestone Development Foundation and the municipal government on economic development efforts. The goal is to host a visioning retreat in January for town leaders, work toward downtown beautification, and update the town’s 10-year comprehensive plan.

“I have a personal interest in seeing the town be successful,” Warner said. “As executive director, I also have the desire to see a strengthening in our relationship with the town. MSSM cannot flourish unless the town flourishes and the school is successful.”

Facing the future

From the town’s perspective, the future is looking bright.

Town clerk Marlene Durepo said Limestone has seen a jump in home sales in the past two years, from about 10 to 30 sales annually. Some sales are the result of jobs at the commerce center, but others are from people who want to “get out of the city.” Officials say lower taxes, the school system, and Limestone’s hometown image also may be working in the town’s favor.

Limestone’s big news, though, is a 100-by-72-foot fire station with a four-bay garage. Town Manager Donna Bernier said the Main Street station, to be complete by Dec. 1, will replace a 50-year-old station on Church Street. More importantly, she said, the station is the first nonresidential building that has gone up in Limestone in at least 25 years.

Officials hope the new visioning effort will result in more positive, concrete results – just as the visioning process in the 1990s brought MSSM to Limestone.

Greg Ward, interim director for the Limestone Development Foundation, said that such results will require a lot of effort from the entire community.

“We need people to come together,” Ward said.

He thinks that if Limestone could stop the negativity about the downtown and focus on solutions, and if the town could get just 10 percent of incoming employees at the commerce center to build homes in town, it would be a start.

“If we don’t change what we’re doing, though, we’re going to be worse off,” he said.

The way Ward sees it, Limestone can’t wait for something to jump-start the economy. The town will have to roll up its sleeves and save itself.

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