County Commission Chair Exiting Office a Galactic Spaceport Virgin
By Tony A. Archuleta
The world according to Walt: one of our 33 counties is missing.
When Walter Armijo took Sierra County Commission office in January 2007, Spaceport America was a visionary proposal in need of taxpayer support in Sierra and Doña Ana counties.
Like the great majority of elected officials locally, Armijo urged his constituency to follow the lead of Doña Ana County in supporting the quarter-cent sales tax referendum to help finance construction of the then $210 million spaceport.
With then-Gov. Bill Richardson and Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson selling the state in general, Doña Ana and Sierra counties in particular, on the promising future of commercial space travel, the tax measures passed – first narrowly in Doña Ana in 2007 then decisively in Sierra in 2008.
Pitched as early as 2006, the spaceport, according to proponents of every business and governmental stripe, was all but guaranteed to go operational by 2009 – no later than 2010.
The state and both counties, through the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, did its part in getting the spaceport built, with Branson showing up in 2010 to celebrate completion of the then two-mile long runway and again in 2011 to acknowledge completion of the terminal hangar facility.
Having won a second four-year term on the commission in 2010, Armijo was reasonably certain that the spaceport would open for business before the close of his second term later this year.
But 14 years after Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites SpaceShipOne with a three-man crew made its historic back-to-back flights in California, SpaceShipTwo – with an eight-seat configuration (including two pilots) and under the development and ownership of Virgin Galactic – remains a test-flight-work-in-progress in the Mojave Desert.
When yet another one of Branson’s much publicized launch target dates – this one December 2014 – failed to materialize, it sealed Armijo’s political spaceport legacy of unfinished business. Having been one of the spaceport’s leading advocates, it will be one of his successors (or one of their successors) who ultimately enjoys life as a commissioner with a fully operational spaceport in his county.
Armijo, during Wednesday’s, Oct. 22, special county commission meeting, was feeling none too pleased about the way it’s all turned out.
Not only is Armijo disappointed that the spaceport continues to lie largely dormant, but it’s become increasingly apparent to him that Las Cruces/Doña Ana County stands to gain the most from the spaceport now that the construction phase is largely wrapped up in Sierra County (a proposed visitors center in Truth or Consequences notwithstanding).
The spaceport may be located in Sierra County, but Las Cruces continues to be spaceport central with Virgin Galactic headquarters, the NMSA offices, the annual International Symposium for Personal & Commercial Spaceflight all situated in New Mexico’s second largest city.
Right now all eyes in Doña Ana County are focused on the southern route leading from Upham near Las Cruces north to the spaceport. Once that road gets paved and/or improved at an estimated cost starting at $15 million, the northern route going through Truth or Consequences, which facilitated construction, will no longer be the leading route. It could even become susceptible to temporary closure during launches, presumably bearing a northeasterly trajectory.
Both Armijo and County Manager Bruce Swingle attended Monday’s, Oct. 20, legislative hearing in Las Cruces hosted by the New Mexico Finance Authority Oversight Committee.
Both commissioner and manager came away with the sense of having been overlooked as representatives of Sierra County.
“I was real disappointed because Sierra County wasn’t recognized too much,” Armijo said during his commissioner’s report two days later. “All the emphasis has actually been made toward Doña Ana County.”
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