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Aerospace firm targets ABQ for new campus

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

An East Coast aerospace company that aims to digitally model the entire planet using a network of satellites is eyeing an expansion into Albuquerque, with plans to build a massive campus near Kirtland Air Force Base.

On Thursday, the Albuquerque Environmental Planning Commission approved a new site plan for an approximately 122-acre parcel situated between the base and Albuquerque International Sunport, helping pave the way for Washington, D.C.-based Group Orion to develop the land.

While the city still needs to complete the lease agreement and secure permission from the Federal Aviation Administration, Group Orion hopes to build a campus that will include a two-million-square-foot manufacturing center, an eight-story office and laboratory building, a new food hall and an extended-stay hotel, among other developments.

“This is going to be a little city in itself,” said David Shaffer, vice chair of the planning commission.

The campus, which would be known as the Orion Center, could house 1,000 jobs once it opens and eventually expand to include 2,500 jobs, according to James Strozier, principal at Albuquerque-based Consensus Planning, which submitted the plans on behalf of Group Orion.

Albuquerque Economic Development Director Synthia Jaramillo said the project represents the latest opportunity to attract development from the commercial space industry, which she said was slated to be worth $3 trillion globally by 2045.

At a press conference alongside Mayor Tim Keller late Thursday afternoon, Jaramillo cited the community’s “engineering-savvy” workforce, low property tax and tax deductions that target the aviation and aerospace industries. In addition, she said, the city boasts “large swaths of vacant land, unrestricted air space and low population density.”

“This company is very much in line with Mayor Keller’s goals for economic development,” Jaramillo said during the commission meeting.

The project represents the city’s latest effort to develop the parcel of land that once held the Sunport’s north-south runway.

The city began marketing the site – which it dubbed the Aviation Center for Excellence – to commercial and office developers in 2017 in an attempt to spur development in Southeast Albuquerque.

Nyika Allen, Albuquerque’s director of aviation, said the city began working with Group Orion in late 2018.

The company is a subsidiary of Theia Group Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based company that’s working to develop a network of satellites that will digitally image and collect data on the physical world, providing solutions in areas from logistics to biology.

James Reid Gorman, vice president of administration for Theia, said Albuquerque was appealing in part because of its pipeline of engineering talent, and added he hopes the company can partner with New Mexico universities to attract graduates.

“It’s going to be a big part of our strategy in recruiting,” Gorman said.

Orion has so far not requested any economic development incentives, such as Local Economic Development Act funds, according to city leaders.

If plans are finalized, the multi-building campus will spread out on both sides of Girard Boulevard, south of Gibson Boulevard.

The focal point will be the assembly building, a two-million-square-foot, largely single-story building that will serve as the company’s main manufacturing and testing center, according to Joe Lear, principal at Davis Partnership Architects, a Denver-based architecture firm and project partner.

Lear said plans for the campus also include an eight-story building that will include laboratories, offices and additional assembly space.

Lear said plans on the western side of the campus call for an extended-stay hotel to house new hires and other guests, a food hall for employees in the vein of Albuquerque’s Sawmill Market and an eight-story parking garage. Lear added that the company has proposed a skybridge over Girard to help employees cross the street safely.

The company is hopeful the campus can be open by 2023.

While the project remains far from a done deal, city officials say they are optimistic given the company’s investments up to now – Group Orion has hired local engineers and paid the city $125,000 earlier this year as a retainer to hold the land.

Standing at the site Thursday, Keller called the project potentially “transformative” for central New Mexico.

“It is a frankly unbelievable bright spot in the midst of a pandemic,” he said. “… This project is such a big deal we haven’t wanted to talk about it that much. We basically don’t want to jinx it.”

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