Friday, February 11, 2011

Reprise: A Tale of Two Cities

One of the curses of having written so many letters and commentaries over the years, and having made so many posts on Side, is a clouded memory on which items have been run before. 

We’re posting here an item published in The Ostrich more than three years ago, because we believe the underlying realities are entirely relevant to current circumstances.  We did considerable research before writing the original, yet we know that many local readers will decry the content as the work of a nay-sayer and pessimist.

Great; that’s why we make accommodation for comments and opposing points of view – so a ‘dialogue’ can take place.

And the mere fact that we used the d-word should up our stock in the court of public opinion. 


A “Tale of Two Cities”

The classic novel by Charles Dickens begins with these words:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us,...”

In the past few months, I’ve invested a good deal of time studying the outlook for Brunswick as closure of Brunswick Naval Air Station approaches. Recently, I looked into the experiences of Portsmouth, New Hampshire following closure of Pease Air Force Base in 1991. You’re not going to like what I found.

As I reflected on this situation, the words above seemed wonderfully appropriate; they capture the wildly divergent extremes our future could hold. We have the “best of times” folks – those “forward thinkers” who feel base closure is a gift from above, and who believe Brunswick is poised for “continuing” and “exceptional” growth.

Then there are those of us who believe closure of the base, coupled with exceptionally dismal demographic and economic outlooks in our region, foretell the “worst of times.” We are especially concerned that town leaders are behaving as if they haven’t yet seen the memo about closure, but are instead practicing business as usual.

We are in a struggle between denial based optimism and fact based apprehension, and only one of the two is considered acceptable by the “Brunswick is special” crowd. To help you decide where you fit in, let me describe what I found.

Pease Air Force Base, a 4,255 acre facility adjacent to Portsmouth, NH, was selected for closure in 1988. In 1989, 3,461 active duty military and 1,080 civilians were employed at Pease. It’s estimated the base created 2,466 secondary jobs in surrounding communities. Military personnel began departing in June 1990, and the base closed in March 1991. (

Portsmouth had a population in excess of 26,000 in 1980, and reached a peak of 29,000 in 1987. By 1989, it had dropped to 25,000, and two years later, was in the 22,000 range. By 2000 it had declined to 20,784. The estimate for 2006 is 20,618. (; City of Portsmouth) Clearly, Portsmouth’s population dropped steeply following base closure, and has not rebounded, in spite of aggressive redevelopment of Pease.


Let’s talk about that. Now known as Pease International Tradeport, it includes Portsmouth International Airport, a golf course, an Air National Guard facility, and an astonishingly large list of tenants – 225 by my count. With very few exceptions, these are commercial, for profit enterprises. There are a smattering of colleges, non-profits, and small public sector facilities, such as a post office and fire station. (

This is widely seen as a world class business park, with proximity to a deep water port, direct access to Interstate 95, and its own major air transport capability. It’s the antithesis of the “Brunswick is perfect just the way it is” vision, and the “public use” emphasis driving BNAS reuse: gardens, homeless housing, college expansionism, conservation, rec centers, municipal facilities, and more. Regardless of this spectacular conversion into a bustling Tradeport, Portsmouth population is over 8,000 below its pre-closure peak, a decline of nearly 30%, and has been treading water for years.

Portsmouth school enrollment was over 5,000 in 1980, and still in the 4,000’s until 1987. It then began a precipitous decline to the mid-2,000’s as the base shut down. More recent figures show enrollment of 2,706 in 2000, and 2,572 in 2007. (NH Department of Education; Brunswick Times Record) So while overall population has stabilized, school enrollment continues to decline, rather than stabilize or even rebound.

To summarize, the experience at Pease/Portsmouth is aggressive and successful economic redevelopment, with severe decline in overall population and continuing decline in school enrollment. This is in New Hampshire, with a state and local tax burden that ranks 48th, compared to ours at number 2. They have no income tax, and no sales tax. Their business friendliness is very high, ours is amongst the worst in the nation. Their economic health and average incomes are substantially higher than ours. Their location trumps ours by every measure. Their population is younger. They are better educated, and they are far less dependent on government provided health care and social services.

Even with these advantages, the population and school enrollment consequences of Pease closure are demonstrably singular-down, down, down. One wonders how these realities compare with predictions by “forward thinkers” before the base actually closed.

I don’t see how anyone can look at these facts, our distinctly gloomy regional economic and demographic conditions, the pervasive anti-business, anti-development local attitude, and be anything but afraid, very afraid for what the future holds.

I challenge anyone to explain what Brunswick is going to do differently and better than what was done at Pease to somehow make a miracle occur, and to fulfill our highly-touted consultants’ predictions for post-closure population and school enrollment growth. I’m beginning to wonder just what drives their awareness and enlightenment, and I’m afraid I don’t like the answers I’m coming up with.

And please, keep the “always look at the bright side” lectures to yourself. I’d prefer something more convincing.

Pem Schaeffer


(Pem Schaeffer writes frequently, and actively engages in state and local issues. He recently completed a lengthy study of the school enrollment outlook for Brunswick. Contact him at to request a copy.)

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1 comment:

  1. As Dickens might have said there are prophets of bloom and there are prophets of gloom. No one wants to hear from the latter because they still feel there must be hope. How does it feel to be the one in the know of reality and no one wants to share your knowledge? Welcome to the club.