SIERRA COUNTY, N.M. (KRQE) – Spaceport America was built with the idea to make New Mexico a leader in the aerospace industry by offering unique access to the heavens.
The spaceport would be home to the world’s first commercial passenger space launch facility.
Spaceport officials constructed a runway, launch pads, a terminal building and mission control. They promised to send astronauts into sub-orbit, create jobs, boost tourism, lift the economy and earn a ton of money.
The grand opening was celebrated in 2011.
However, the promises made years ago turned out to be sky high. Today, other than a few dozen vertical rocket launches the spaceport sits mostly vacant.
The Spaceport cost $219,000,000 to build. It now loses about $500,000 each year.
Due to a slew of delays and technical setbacks, Spaceport America depends on taxpayers to keep its operation afloat.
“It’s a $220 million boondoggle.” Senator George Munoz said.
Senator Munoz serves on the Senate Finance Committee and says Spaceport America has not been careful with its money.
“They’ve thrown [public dollars] in any direction the wind blows.” Senator Munoz said.
During a two month long investigation, KRQE News 13 reviewed almost $13 million in Spaceport expenditures. One project that stuck out was a $9,000,000 contract to an Orlando, Florida firm called IDEAS.
“We felt we needed to take a little money and design an experience for guests that come to Spaceport America.” Spaceport America Executive Director Christine Anderson said.
Spaceport contracted with IDEAS to develop a Spaceport Visitor Experience.
“IDEAS is a company in Florida and it’s a very interesting company of people that used to work on Disney theme parks and EPCOT.” Anderson said.
IDEAS was paid millions of dollars to design a Visitor Center in Truth or Consequences.
“This is about a 5,000 or 6,000 square foot building with parking area off of the interstate at exit 79.” Anderson said.
The architectural team put together an animated movie showing how the building would blend with the environment. They spent years designing the building, landscaping, parking lots, exhibits, signs and ticket counters.
However, there was one thing missing from all those architectural plans – a place to build it.
The Spaceport doesn’t own the property where it hoped to build in Truth or Consequences. And, Spaceport officials admit they don’t have the money to buy it.
“It’s ridiculous,” Senator Munoz said.
Munoz says he has never seen a state project that spends millions of dollars designing a building on land it doesn’t own.
“Generally a facility is designed around where it’s going to go…You need to have the property in place first,” Representative Patty Lundstrom, who serves on a legislative Spaceport oversight committee, said. “It doesn’t make sense to spend millions of dollars on a design that you don’t know you can use. That is very questionable.”
The Visitor Center expenditures were authorized by the seven-member Spaceport Authority Board.
Rather than put all the futuristic exhibits in storage, the Spaceport has now decided to install them in a 70-year-old former senior citizens center leased from the city of Truth or Consequences.
Ideas was also paid a few million dollars to design a 5,000 square-foot on-site Welcome Center at the Spaceport. The architectural designs include interactive exhibits, a 3D theater, a restaurant and a merchandise shop.
However, the Spaceport spent so much money planning the building, they don’t have any money left to build it. Some of the exhibits have been temporarily installed in a second floor gallery of the Virgin Galactic hanger.
Because Spaceport bought equipment specifically designed for buildings it hasn’t built, tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of electronics are today unusable.
The original plans for the Spaceport called for the facility to generate enough income to be self-supporting. So they hired a marketing firm to find sponsors that would help pay the bills.
After spending tens of thousands of dollars, Anderson said the marketing firm could not locate any sponsors.
“Getting sponsors, there’s no guarantee in getting sponsors.” Anderson said.
The money spent on the Visitor’s Experience is not the only thing that caught KRQE News 13’s attention.
Even though the sprawling complex is mostly vacant, the spaceport pays $2,900,000 a year to an Albuquerque firm called Fiore Industries to provide 24/7 fire protection using specially trained firefighters. It’s enough money to fund the operation of more than 40 New Mexico volunteer fire departments for an entire year.
“From my perspective it doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Lundstrom said. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense if you don’t have a lot of activity in the facility.”
Anderson does not agree. She says the valuable Spaceport buildings need to be protected. And, she says, the nearest fire department is an hour away from the rural Sierra County facility.
“I personally don’t think that that’s a waste of money to have those people here protecting this facility,” Anderson said. “We have people working here…and we have tourists that come here.”
Today Spaceport firefighters spend their time training, putting out area brush fires and dealing with occasional rattlesnakes.
Because the rocket business is a bit slow these days, the Spaceport has found some unique ways to generate revenue.
For example, J. Crew rented the property for a fashion shoot, Land Rover taped a commercial, a Hollywood movie rented it for a press junket and Kawasaki launched a TV spot using the impressive runway.
The Spaceport also signed a licensing agreement with a Lady Gaga promoter for the pop star to perform at a three-day Spaceport music festival. The plan is for Lady Gaga to board a rocket ship and sing a song in space.
“I can’t figure that one out. [Lady Gaga] is going to have a concert in a space suit? I have no idea,” Senator Munoz said. “I cannot figure out how you are going to get 50,000 fans at Spaceport America on a two-lane road to do a concert.”
Senator John Arthur Smith, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, says the Spaceport should be careful with taxpayer money.
“Given the scarcity of dollars in the state of New Mexico on our revenue side, if there was ever a time to be efficient with your dollars it should be now.” Senator John Arthur Smith said. He adds, there is no guarantee public funding will be available to the Spaceport in the future.
“I’m having a difficult time just funding streets and roads in the state of New Mexico that obviously take a higher priority in the taxpayers mind and I can’t guarantee that either.”
KRQE News 13 asked Anderson if she was aware that some members of the Senate Finance Committee didn’t think she had been careful with taxpayer’s money. She responded, “When I testify sometimes they tell me that, yes.”
When asked if she owes the public any apology for Spaceport’s expenditures Anderson said, “No I think they’ve gotten a lot for their money.”