Dispute Over Funding for Spaceport America Welcome Centers Leads to Board Resignation

By Douglas Messier

Parabolic Arc Managing Editor

A public disagreement over a change of plans in how to construct and operate two Spaceport America welcome and visitor centers has led to the departure of a member of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority’s (NMSA) Board of Directors.

Scott Krahling resigned from the board earlier this month after he had publicly criticized a decision to cut back funding for Spaceport America welcome centers to be built in Hatch and Truth or Consequences in an opinion piece in the Las Cruces Sun-News. The centers are staging locations for visitors to take buses to the spaceport.

The money was diverted to pay for a $7 million runway extension at Spaceport America to satisfy concerns by anchor tenant Virgin Galactic that it was not long enough to allow for safe year-round operations of the company’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle.

Instead of building and operating the welcome centers, NMSA will solicit offers from land owners and developers and sign long-term leases for the facilities. Krahling disagreed with the approach, saying it would result in lower quality centers and broke a commitment to local residents who are helping to fund the spaceport.

After Krahling’s op-ed was published, Gov. Susana Martinez left his name off a list of NMSA board members submitted for approval to the State Senate. A spokesman for the governor cited Krahling’s public airing of his grievances and poor engagement with spaceport issues, including missed NMSA board meetings, as reasons for the omission.

Although he was not asked to resign, Krahling said he did so to allow the governor to select another member to serve. He also admitted to missing a number of meetings because they conflicted with his primary job as a Doña Ana County commissioner.

“In hindsight, it probably wasn’t a good idea to have a county commissioner as a spaceport authority board member,” he admitted in an interview.

Under the new plan, NMSA would solicit offers from local landowners in Hatch and Truth or Consequences. Private developers would then build the centers and lease them back to the authority. Spaceport officials say that the new plan will not reduce the quality of the welcome centers and that NMSA is spending more on them than originally planned. Official are expecting around 200,000 visitors per year.

In his op-ed, Krahling said this approach would lead to lower quality welcome centers and ignored recommendations by local advisory boards on where to locate them. He said the state should step up with more funding to support the original plan and keep its commitment to local residents who voted to pay higher taxes in order to support Spaceport America’s construction.

Obtaining more public money for the $209 million spaceport seems unlikely. Gov. Martinez has publicly said that she wants the facility to become self sufficient as soon as possible. The Republican governor is taking a much harder line on the spaceport than her Democratic predecessor, Bill Richardson, who pushed through the construction of the desert facility.

Efforts to make the spaceport self sufficient are being hampered by schedule delays. Completion of the spaceport is running behind schedule. Virgin Galactic is also behind on the start of commercial service, which will bring in substantial revenues in the former of user fees to the authority. Virgin officials are now projecting commercial flights to begin by the end of 2013, which is years behind the original schedule.

NMSA’s change of plans has riled officials in the village of Hatch where one of the welcome centers would be located. The town had already annexed land for the facility, which was donated by a local land owner. However, the plan to see offers from would-be sellers of land and commercial developers has ruined that effort.

One of the key problems with the Hatch location, however, is that it would cost $2.5 million to extend utilities to the site. The village can’t afford it and was looking for NMSA to share the expenses. However, the authority says it can’t justify spending spaceport funding for local utility expansion.

Hatch Mayor Judd Nordyke says officials are frustrated by frequent changes of NMSA’s frequent changes of direction. The authority has had three executive directors over the years. Each time a new one comes in, the plan for the welcome centers changes.

“We’ve been around the bend so many times, we don’t know which way is up,” he said in an interview. “It’s been very frustrating to us.”

Sources for this article:

Krahling resigns Spaceport America post: http://www.lcsun-news.com/ci_20446507/krahling-resigns-spaceport-america-post

Spaceport support leads to resignation: http://www.lascrucesbulletin.com/index.php?pSetup=lascrucesbulletin&curDate=20120427&pageToLoad=showFreeArticle.php&type=art&index=02&title=Spaceport+support+leads+to+resignation

Spaceport’s evolving plans rile Hatch officials: http://www.lcsun-news.com/las_cruces-news/ci_20456288/spaceports-evolving-plans-rile-hatch-officials