- Associated Press - Friday, November 6, 2015

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - It could be late 2017 before Virgin Galactic begins launching commercial space flights from the New Mexico desert, but state spaceport officials say they have a new master plan aimed at attracting tenants and boosting revenue.

The plan calls for building a new hangar at Spaceport America, developing the vertical launch area and offering about 300 acres for lease. Officials envision leasing parcels of various sizes to aerospace and other tech-related companies.

The plan could generate more than $3.2 million a year in rent and user fees are expected to bring in more, Spaceport Authority Executive Director Christine Anderson said.

Anderson, who briefed lawmakers in Santa Fe earlier this week, told The Associated Press via email that efforts to increase awareness of opportunities at the spaceport are showing promise. She says the authority is planning another open house in April and will continue to reach out to potential tenants and work with local school districts on more educational projects.

On Friday, officials also announced the successful launch of an UP Aerospace rocket that was carrying experiments from two universities and NASA. It marked the 24th launch from the spaceport.

Spaceport officials are expecting to need an infusion of $2.8 million in state general funds to cover expenses for the next fiscal year, much more than in previous years because construction bonds and other funds from previous years will have run out.

There’s no firm date for Virgin Galactic to begin its commercial flights, and Anderson said the spaceport’s budget request for the next fiscal year assumes that won’t happen until after June 2017.

It took nearly a quarter-billion dollars to build the spaceport. Taxes imposed in Dona Ana and Sierra counties also have contributed to the construction.

Virgin’s delays and a lack of profits have spurred skepticism and irked state lawmakers, some of whom have referred to the futuristic facility as a boondoggle.

Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, among the key legislative leaders who hash out the state budget each year, said he’s still concerned about the uncertainty of Virgin Galactic’s timing and the ability of the spaceport to find new streams of revenue.

“The master plan - on paper - looks OK,” the Santa Fe Democrat said. “But it’s sort of a question mark as to when and how much are we going to get out of it.”

There will be little new money to expand state spending next year because of depressed oil and gas prices, Varela said, and the priority will be education, meaning requests for a new hangar and a taxiway may have to be pushed aside.

“It’s sort of a wait-and-see position that we’re taking,” he said.

Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park, said the delays have been disappointing but the state shouldn’t give up.

“It is rocket science. It’s complicated and it’s hard and it’s going to take time,” he said. “But the potential is there.”

Spaceport America’s success has been tied mostly to anchor tenant Virgin Galactic, but Virgin’s plans suffered a setback last fall when a rocket-powered spacecraft broke apart during a test flight in the California desert, killing a pilot.

Virgin Galactic pays about $1.6 million a year in lease and user fees. Other aerospace customers and special events are expected to bring in close to three-quarters of a million dollars this fiscal year.

Officials foresee other users contributing close to $1.4 million during the 2017 fiscal year.


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