Spaceport costs grow along with high hopes
Camden County leaders are hoping a proposed commercial spaceport will be the economic boon that coastal Georgia needs, but they acknowledge there is some financial risk involved.
So far, the county has spent about a million dollars on the effort, which is about the same amount of money required to pave a few miles of road or buy a few fire trucks. County administrator Steve Howard says it is worth the investment because the payoff stands to be so big.
Also weighing on their minds is the consequence of not taking action to spur growth. The tax digest is steadily dropping in value and the county’s industrial base is almost non-existent.
“If we don’t, nothing will happen,” said commissioner Chuck Clark, whose district encompasses the spaceport site and surrounding properties. “It takes courage to make change.”
“The brain drain”
Clark’s uncle, former mayor of Woodbine, sits on the Joint Development Authority and his father is a former commissioner. Over several generations, Clark and his family have invested much in the progress of Camden County. As a north Camden resident, he serves District 2, which covers a diverse population of the county’s highest and lowest income households.
Clark said he is tired of seeing college-educated young people who can’t return to their hometowns in Camden County because there are no quality jobs available. The community invests heavily in a top quality K-12 education system, but high school graduates remain a chief export.
He and his fellow commissioners want to see an end to the financial hardships that have plagued the county since the recession shuttered retail stores and business offices all along Georgia Highway 40 and U.S. Highway 17.
However, if the Federal Aviation Administration does not issue a launch permit, they will be left to explain the loss of revenues in a county where resources are shrinking. If they don’t pursue the project and let the opportunity pass, history may also judge them harshly.
“You need a catalyst event” to bring economic recovery to southeast Georgia, Howard said. He cited gross national product disparity between southeast Georgia and other parts of the state and country as evidence that this area is lagging behind, economically.
For years, local leaders have called for diversification of the economy because it was so heavily residential, which costs more and returns less to the economy than industrial and commercial developments. The county has only been funding the JDA in a competitive manner for the past two budget years.
The spaceport project, which is overseen directly by Howard versus the JDA, does not replace the county’s economic development efforts. But if successful, the spaceport would make the JDA’s job much easier.
County leaders believe strongly that manufacturers that support the space industry and their payloads are the real pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
“All we can do is make the atmosphere as conducive as we can,” said Jimmy Starline, chair of the board of commissioners.
Howard said Camden County representatives have talked to many commercial companies who are interested in the prospect of a commercial spaceport at that site. However, he said, the county has made very clear that this will be a public-private partnership and there will be some buy-in from those who operate the site.
“They continue to seek us out because they need a commercial launch site on the East Coast,” he said.
Commissioners believe the Camden site is so unique that it has a competitive advantage over other sites currently in operation. Starline reiterated that Camden has made clear to prospective operators that some financial participation will be required on their part, whether that includes capital improvements on the site, user fees or some sort of other contractual obligation.
According to the county’s financial documents from the last three fiscal years, Camden County has spent approximately:
• $444,154 on property acquisition (Holland & Knight);
• $275,195 on due diligence studies related to the environmental impact statement (Leidos, Thomas & Hutton, Tetra Tech and Woodrow Well);
• $28,933 on marketing/promotion (Great Southern Publishers, Camden Printing, GoDaddy.com, Spaceworks Enterprises, GovComms, PRI Productions, and Commercial Space Flight Federation);
• 9,430 in transportation;
• $2,128 in lodging;
• $1,719 on meals; and
• $211,424 on contract labor.
In the category of contract labor, county records reflect $168,618 in paid invoices from subject matter expert Andrew Nelson and $42,806 made to Clay Montague, a college professor who chaired the county’s environmental subcommittee for the project and is assisting with various aspects of the due diligence process.
The county signed a purchase option with Bayer CropScience in June 2015 that will allow them to purchase about 4,000 acres at the end of Harrietts Bluff Road for $4.8 million. That purchase is contingent on the FAA granting permission to operate a spaceport there. The county has agreed to pay about $960,000 to secure the purchase option.
The county is currently negotiating with Union Carbide to purchase additional land that will serve as a buffer to the launch area.
The numbers are big, but Howard said citizens should ask themselves how much they would be willing to pay for a chance at bringing more science, technology, mathematics and engineering jobs to town, as well as tourism jobs related to an active launch facility. Current spaceport expenditures, to date, equate to about $20 per Camden County resident.
He pointed out that many local residents supported the St. Marys Airport relocation project, which was slated to cost between $30-$50 million. Howard said Camden stands to gain a lot more from the spaceport project than a general aviation airport.
The big picture
At the other end of Harrietts Bluff Road, near the interchange with Interstate 95, the county operates an industrial park and has been slowly repurchasing inactive lots from the property owners.
The county has discussed the possibility of constructing a second road to the spaceport site from Exit 14 in Woodbine. From that side of the property, there are large tracts of undeveloped property, including 15,000 acres that Sea Island had once slated for residential development.
Additionally, Camden County has received design money from the state budget for a technical college campus at Harrietts Bluff.
All of those components — undeveloped, sparsely populated land, a nearby business park and technical college and proximity to rail, interstate and ocean transport — complement one another, Howard said.
He thinks the site would attract multiple companies, much in the way that fast food restaurants tend to cluster together.
“They all draw on the same market,” Starline said.
However, they are quick to caution that the Camden spaceport cannot be easily compared to the others.
“Our niche (for small to medium rockets) is very different,” Howard said.
County leaders said aerospace companies continue to comment on the uniqueness of the site and show interest in potentially operating there.
St. Marys resident Barry King, who served as Camden County administrator from 1998-2002, said he agrees with the county’s decision to pursue the project, but agrees that it is not a guaranteed slam dunk for Camden County. While it has the potential to bring monumental positive change to the community, “my advice would be to proceed with a lot of caution.”
King said a spaceport also could bring negative impacts that we failed to consider in advance.
What lies ahead
Howard previously stated that he planned to appoint a financial subcommittee to the Spaceport Camden Steering Committee to look at the financial impact of the project, both positive and negative. When asked recently about this subcommittee, he said he was not ready to address that part of the equation since we do not yet have a draft EIS to evaluate.
He said Georgia’s university system has reached out to the county and offered help with constructing a business plan, which could greatly increase the their resources in weighing the financial questions that lie ahead.
There are more spaceport-related expenditures to come, but much is unknown until the FAA issues a draft environmental impact statement. This will be the first official indication of whether the site is viable as a spaceport and what mitigation, if any, the site will need before being cleared for launches.
“If you notice, we are not making a lot of claims (about the future),” said Starline. “We’re waiting for the studies to come out.”
Some would disagree. Harrietts Bluff resident Steve Weinkle said he is troubled by the county’s advocacy of the project without first having all the facts about its potential impact.
Weinkle is also concerned about how rockets could be launched over Cumberland Island without endangering sensitive sites of historical and archaelological significance.
A scoping report recently released by the FAA includes a letter from the National Park Service that voiced concerns about how varying launch schedules could impact access and ferry reservations for Cumberland Island. Visitors often plan trips months or years in advance.
“The NPS is doing exactly what they are supposed to do in this process,” said Howard, who seemed unconcerned by the letter. “They ask every possible question imaginable to make sure everything is covered.”
The FAA will weigh all of the environmental issues and ensure launches can be relatively safe. However, county leaders said, the final decision rests with the county commissioners, Starline said.
Starline and Clark both said they would pull the plug on the project if it the costs to taxpayers — with regard to tax dollars, property interests or quality of life — are too great.
“If it’s not a good match for Camden County, we’re not going to want any part of it,” Starline said.