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Editorial: Hold the countdown on sale of Spaceport

Spaceport America was always a long-term bet on the future. It was never intended to turn a quick buck. Still, it’s been frustratingly slow getting off the ground.

And that has prompted Sen. George Munoz, D-Gallup, to call for putting the roughly $220 million spaceport on the auction block so New Mexico taxpayers don’t have to dig deeper into their pockets to keep it going in hopes it one day will be a linchpin in a new global travel industry.

The frustrations have mounted and the spaceport’s main tenant, Virgin Galactic, is recovering from a devastating setback last October when its spaceship broke apart over California during a test flight.

While Munoz, a good steward of tax dollars, is understandably frustrated, some perspective is needed. The visionary spaceport was developed during the Gov. Bill Richardson administration and had buy-in from lawmakers. New Mexico taxpayers already have invested nearly a quarter of a billion dollars into the project.

Munoz’s bill would require the New Mexico Spaceport Authority and others to come up with a marketing plan by October to sell the facility. Money from the sale would be used to pay back development bonds. Taxes imposed in Sierra and Doña Ana counties to pay for the project could be rescinded.

But there are multiple problems with Munoz’ proposal.

First, the likelihood of a sale itself. The Legislative Finance Committee’s Fiscal Impact Report says the number of potential buyers “is very limited” and finding a qualified buyer could take years. Because there is no privately owned, FAA-certified operating spaceport for comparison, it will be impossible to determine a fair market value. Plus it’s uncertain if a private owner could negotiate an agreement with White Sands Missile Range for use of airspace.

Perhaps more important, attempting to sell would send the wrong message to the entire space industry – that New Mexico isn’t open for space business. We would essentially be throwing in the towel. For a state where poverty is a huge industry, that would be a sad concession.

Unloading what Munoz and others worry is a white elephant wouldn’t be cheap or a fast fix. New Mexico should stay the course while working hard to attract more users.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.