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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Terry Brunner: The View From Space, Truth or Consequences, NM

This is a guest blog by Terry Brunner, State Director of USDA Rural Development-New Mexico.

One of the joys of my position as State Director for Rural Development at USDA is experiencing what rural communities throughout New Mexico have to offer and the challenges they face. This week I traveled to Truth or Consequences, NM for a couple of days. On my agenda was a trip to the Spaceport, meetings with local officials and a press announcement with Senator Udall.

I think it was 104 degrees in T or C when I arrived and got ready for my tour of the Spaceport. I shed my coat, rolled up my sleeves and traveled out to see what I heard is the future of commercial space flight.

A quick disclaimer: for a time my mother was a flight attendant, my father worked for Delta Airlines and on an Navy aircraft carrier as an air traffic controller and my brother served as a Navy Helicopter pilot who piloted dozens of precarious missions over Iraq’s no-fly zone. Despite my familial connections with air travel, I can safely say that I never caught any such bug that made me want to fly much more than a few feet off the ground. And, I might add, I never have been a Star Trek fan, a sci-fi enthusiast or taken an astronomy course. I was skeptical of the Spaceport at first, but I learned quickly that it doesn’t take a space enthusiast or a Trekie to get excited about the project.

Spaceport
Click on photos for larger versions

The Spaceport sits just about 30 miles west from I-25/Truth and Consequences and in the middle of what’s called the Journada del Muerto -- the famous Journey of Death for early New Mexico explorers.  It’s a haul out there but as you see the Spaceport rise in the distance it becomes clear that it is something special. The terminal for the Spaceport is almost complete and the building is simply an architectural wonder. Its form is easily incorporated into the land as it rises out of the desert floor at about a 20 degree angle and peaks in the form of a large, windowed viewing area. A rust-colored roof curls like a carp’s lip over the top of the building.

Terminal

Virgin Galactic designed the Spaceport to make the space travel experience everything you ever dreamed it could be. Those paying for high-priced tickets aren’t treated as passengers, but astronauts. They arrive in the terminal together in vehicles and enter the training center in the terminal for a three-day astronaut training program. Before astronauts board the flight, they will walk down a long, dark, dramatic corridor into the light of the tarmac to board the ship. The terminal will feature a restaurant and viewing area for family and friends wanting to see the astronauts take off. Soon a visitor’s center will be constructed at the entrance to the facility for those who want to learn more about the Spaceport.

We drove to the end of the runway made of 46-inch-thick concrete and looked northward at the infinite desert and blue skies before us. It wasn’t hard to imagine the thrill of hurtling down the runway towards space.

As someone familiar with economic development, my mind started churning and thinking about the possibilities associated with the Spaceport and whether the capacity exists locally to benefit from the project. Fortunately, area leaders are gearing up for the challenge. There are plans to locate space-related industries and suppliers near the spaceport and in T or C.  As well, the local school system is working on a space-related curriculum for students in hopes that they can meet job opportunities at the spaceport. In fact, a group of students recently prepared a payload for a practice spaceport launch -- a great opportunity to for kids interested in space.

On the way back to T or C, we drove through Ted Turner’s nearby Armendariz ranch and their headquarters in Engle, NM. Turner is working hard to reintroduce bison in the area and we caught them in a middle of a dust up. The bison were molting, they were lean and there were a lot of calves running around.

Bison

Also noticeable was increased development around Elephant Butte Lake. More and more permanent homes are locating on the east side of the lake; which is helping with the development of the area and providing a greater mix of housing stock for residents and vacationers. Housing for all of those working at the Spaceport and in related industries will be a big challenge for the community.

Before the Spaceport, T or C (formerly Hot Springs, NM) was best known for its natural mineral springs.  A bunch of hotels in town provide lodging and access to minerals baths. I tried out the recently remodeled, historic Sierra Grande Lodge in downtown T or C.

Sierra_grande

After a hot, dusty day in the desert, I felt (and probably looked) like one of Ted Turner’s bison. Folks at the Lodge's front desk were sympathetic -- they offered ice tea and showed me to one of their rooms.  But the highlight of staying at the Sierra Grande, of course, is that every room comes with a free bath in one of their numerous tubs (they also have nicely appointed spa services). After a great Italian meal at the Bella Luca in downtown T or C, I took up the offer for a soak and it was worth every minute.

Mineral_bath
A mineral bath tub at the Sierra Grande Lodge

The next day I woke up refreshed and rejuvenated. I headed out to meet with officials from Elephant Butte, the Sierra County Commission and the hospital. All had on their minds the challenges of a changing community and how we could work together to meet those needs. That afternoon, we celebrated the award with Senator Tom Udall of a $47,000 USDA grant to the Sierra County Economic Development Organization (SCEDO) for the development of a business center.  SCEDO will provide a temporary launching point for local start-up businesses or relocating businesses that wish to take advantage of the business opportunities related to the Spaceport. SCEDO will provide computers, wireless internet, phones, advice and other resources to make sure businesses have what they need to get started and do business in the area.

SCEDO
Presenting a plaque with Senator Tom Udall to John Mulcahy, Executive Director of SCEDO, and Commissioner Al Campbell, SCEDO President

There’s a lot of bad news about the economy out there these days. But in T or C, there’s some good news and opportunities ahead. Their challenge is to make the most of it for their workforce and the 1300 students in their school system that will eventually enter the workforce. These days, across-the-board cuts to government programs and services are in vogue. However, especially for our rural communities, government programs and services provide the infrastructure and conditions that make job growth possible. New Mexicans funded much of the Spaceport project and a trip to the project shows the potential rewards derived from that infrastructure investment. If you haven’t been to T or C in a while, stop by and check it out. Clearly, it’s a community on the move.

This is a guest blog by Terry Brunner. If you'd like to submit a piece for consideration as a guest blog, contact me by clicking on the Email Me link at the upper left-hand corner of the page.

August 10, 2011 at 05:38 PM in Economy, Populism, Guest Blogger, Jobs, Rural Issues, Spaceport | Permalink

Comments

The possibilities for economic development brought by the spaceport are not discussed often enough. This is perhaps the most forward looking project that exists in NM for building a platform for future jobs, and some right now. Thanks, Mr. Brunner, for shedding some light on this.

Posted by: Edgar C. | Aug 11, 2011 9:49:15 AM

The space port fits will with the other oddities discussed in this post - from bison to the baths at T or C. New Mexico is the Land of Enchantment! One day I think we'll all look back at the beginnings of the space port as the pioneering phase of private space travel.

Posted by: Space or Bust | Aug 11, 2011 12:56:26 PM