LIMESTONE – When it comes to economic development opportunity in northern Maine, it seems as if there’s no place like the Loring Commerce Centre.
Successes at the commerce center include a military accounting service, a Job Corps site, and a military refurbishing center.
Down at the Maine Military Authority, the old Hummers keep on coming, and MMA employees keep on churning them out looking like new.
The MMA has been refurbishing military vehicles at Loring since 1997. The facility employed 475 people at its peak, but lack of contract work forced 130 layoffs in May. Gary Cleaves, MMA general manager, said recently that the facility provides a significant number of local jobs – about 80 are from Limestone – and injects much-needed money into the local economy.
Cleaves said he expects to see more growth and wouldn’t be surprised to see the facility grow to employ 1,000 workers.
That’s job security for Dave Prentiss, who works for the rebuild authority and has lived in Limestone for about 15 years. His auto body shop took a hit when the base closed, and when MMA opened, he decided to try something different. Prentiss said that if the commerce center weren’t here, he would leave.
“It’s supported a lot of families through employment,” he said. “And that’s trickled down to the whole region. Limestone doesn’t have a lot of industry, so this place has been a huge asset to them.”
The commerce center, which came into being after the 1994 closure of Loring Air Force Base, seeks industrial and manufacturing enterprises and other businesses to fill the 2.8 million square feet of space left empty when 4,500 military personnel moved away, leaving a gaping hole in the Aroostook County economy.
According to Carl Flora, CEO of the Loring Development Authority, which oversees development at the center, there are 23 businesses employing 1,315 people on the property. That more than makes up for the 1,100 civilian jobs that were lost when the base closed.
Just down the road from MMA, Bill Ossenfort at Pattison Sign Group Inc. knows firsthand about opportunities at the center. As workers bent metal and molded plastic into lighted signs for such companies as Toyota, the assistant production manager noted that the LDA provided the Canadian company with the resources and facilities it needed to break into the U.S. market.
Pattison now employs 32 full-time local workers who turn out about five signs per week – standing as high as 65 feet and weighing 7,000 pounds – for major companies.
Ossenfort, who remembers the energy on the base when he did a 12-year stint at Loring, said he’d like to see the center attract more big businesses and create more opportunities for the local economy.
“The facilities exist,” he said. “Now we’re just waiting for the businesses to come in.”