BRUNSWICK, Maine — Soon after the few remaining Navy officers left Brunswick in May 2011, the formerly thriving air base that employed 5,000 sailors and civilians had shrunk to a quiet ghost town of vacant buildings and empty runways.
After the Base Closure and Realignment Commission voted in 2005 to close Brunswick Naval Air Station, thousands of officers, sailors and their families had been transferred — only about a handful were stationed here in May 2011 — and local businesses and public schools braced for lean times.
But when about a hundred former officers, sailors and civilian employees return to Brunswick the weekend of July 15-17 for a five-year reunion, they'll find the former base far from the deserted wilderness forecast a decade ago.
Nearly 1,000 people work on the former Navy base, with another 800 expected by year's end, according to the civilian authority tasked with redeveloping the 3,200 acres that had played home to Navy P-3 Orion squadrons and support crews for more than six decades. Nearly 15,000 planes flew in and out of Brunswick Executive Airport in 2015, and just across the tarmac, Molnlycke Health Care is operating from a new, 80,000-square-foot facility.
The former Navy hotel is now an assisted living complex. The old Quarterdeck is a call center, and last year, about 900 students attended the midcoast campus of Southern Maine Community College, now occupying four former Navy buildings.
Most recently, on Tuesday, online home furnishings retailer Wayfair opened a facility in the former Navy exchange and announced plans to hire as many as 500 employees in Brunswick.
"Quite frankly, the [Brunswick Landing, the civilian name for the former base] is doing very well," retired Navy Senior Chief Read Rich said Friday. "Consequently, the economic impact is being minimized more every day. Brunswick Landing is the most successful base of all the bases closed during that BRAC year."
Rich was an acoustic operator in VP-26, a squadron of submarine-surveillance P-3 Orions, from 1970 to 1975. He also served as a member of Rear Adm. Edward A. Wilkinson Jr.'s staff until 1978 and — after retiring to Brunswick, worked as a civilian contractor for the Navy for another 20 years. Today he is director of the Veterans Resource Center at Brunswick Landing, and he helped organize the reunion.
Like many in Brunswick, and likely many who will return to the area in July, Rich misses the nonstop activity of the base in its heyday, and the roar of the P-3s as they flew overhead.
"I'd still like to hear the P-3s flying around," Rich said. "I'm sad every day I drive aboard."
Jeff Simpson of Bath never served in the Navy, but he grew up in Topsham and remembers the jets flying over his house as they made their final approach to Brunswick Naval Air Station.
When Simpson became administrator of the "Remember Brunswick Naval Air Station" Facebook page, he asked members if they'd be interested in a reunion — and got "an overwhelming response," Simpson said.
As of Friday, 125 former Brunswick Naval Air Station personnel from as far as Hawaii have registered to attend the event, which will include bowling, golfing at Mere Creek Golf Course — the former Brunswick Naval Air Station course — a tour of Brunswick Landing and a dinner and dance catered by Ned's Bakes and BBQ of Kennebunk.
The registration deadline is July 2. Former military personnel or civilian employees and their families may register by July 2 by visiting bnasreunion.org.
Recognizing that roar of the P-3s is missed by others as well, Simpson contacted Deputy Commodore Capt. James W. Robinson, Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing 11 in Jacksonville, also a former commanding officer of VP-10 when it was stationed in Brunswick, about sending a P-8 — the follow-on to the P-3 — to Brunswick during the reunion, but Simpson said Friday, "Nothing is in stone yet."
P-8 or not, Simpson and Rich look forward to visiting with old friends.
"Seeing the people, swapping sea stories is always a good time," Rich said. "It certainly should be a good weekend."