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$1.5M sought for temporary visitor center at spaceport

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LAS CRUCES – The idea is to start small.

Spaceport America Executive Director Christine Anderson plans to ask the Legislature for $1.5 million to build a hangar that would serve as a visitor center while the spaceport gets on its feet, and temporarily shelve plans for a $13 million welcome center. It’s a thriftier option as the spaceport prepares to shift into full operations, she said, and costs ramp up.

“It’s always about budget, of course, and we’re trying to be as efficient as possible,” Anderson said. “It will get us going faster.”

Anderson has projected that tourism could initially account for 30 percent of the fiscal 2015 operating budget, forecast to rise to nearly $7.7 million in the year beginning July 1 from $1.85 million currently. A visitor center – with educational exhibits, a 3-D theater, gift shop and restaurant – is key to unlocking that revenue stream.

Ultimately, the vision remains for a staging ground near Truth or Consequences where tourists would board buses to a 26,000-square-foot visitor center at the spaceport. Anderson says she still plans to seek a $6 million private loan to cover the costs of constructing the off-site center but has scaled back plans for the on-site location until the spaceport can pay for the expensive version.

The hangar could serve as a visitor center for several years, she said, then later house a tenant.

“The timing of the development of the visitor facility needs to be synchronized with other aspects of the operation,” said Billy Garrett, Doña Ana County Commission chairman, referring to improvement of a southern road that would link the county to the spaceport. “I think it’s important that the authority is looking out for the interests of the people who basically are funding it and have been supportive of this enterprise – in a certain way, their stockholders.”

Doña Ana county taxpayers are paying $8 million annually in spaceport-related taxes, he said, three-quarters of it going toward paying off the bonds that built the spaceport. Anderson said plans for the southern road are also moving forward.

Spaceport costs are expected to rise in fiscal 2015 as the facility becomes fully operational and begins paying for protective services, maintenance of everything from the runway to building systems, as well as IT and space operations. If the Legislature approves the proposed budget, Anderson plans to hire nine employees.

After tourism, 50 percent of projected revenue hinges on more regular launches, namely the start of Virgin Galactic flights, slated to begin later this year – although the company has pushed back start dates before.

The remainder of revenue will stem from leases and special events, Anderson said.

NMSU Economics Professor James Peach expressed skepticism that the spaceport will be fully operational this year, but added that commercial spaceflight seems “more likely this year than it has been at any time in the past.”

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