BURNS FLAT — Thirteen years after Oklahoma lawmakers announced a grand vision for a futuristic spaceport here, town officials complain the state has little to show for its efforts beyond abandoned hangars and crumbling warehouses.
“Ain't that a pretty sight?” Burns Flat Mayor Tom Ryan scoffed, referring to a double row of blighted former military warehouses with collapsed roofs.
Scraggly shrubs have grown up though the seams in the scarred concrete floors of the dilapidated structures.
“It's a danger,” he said. “I would bet you that if private industry had something like that, they would be condemned. They would make them tear it down because of some kid getting in there and getting hurt.”
The decaying warehouses don't belong to some slumlord. They are owned by the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority — a public body created by the Oklahoma Legislature in 1999 to lead the way in bringing the space industry to the state.
“If I were a businessman looking to relocate to Burns Flat, OK, and I came in and was driving around and saw this kind of stuff, this is one place I wouldn't come,” said Duane Manuel, Burns Flat town councilman. “This is just a horrible looking thing.”
Deteriorating facilities and a lack of economic development progress have become a source of friction between frustrated Burns Flat town leaders and spaceport officials.
Town Administrator Billy Yarbrough said Burns Flat has languished in space dreams long enough. It's time to quit star gazing and convert the spaceport to a more traditional regional industrial park, he contends.
Now is not the time to abandon the spaceport vision, counters Jack Benny, chairman of the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority.
“We are so close right now,” Bonny said. “I can't tell you which companies. ... When we talk to these companies, they don't want anyone to know they're talking to you.”
Less than two years ago, Gov. Mary Fallin appeared to come down on the side of disgruntled town leaders when she proposed a state budget that included disbanding the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority.
She has since changed her mind, said Stephen McKeever, the governor's secretary of science and technology.
Commercial space technology has been slowly developing and is only now on the verge of being able to launch space vehicles from horizontal runways as opposed to vertical launchpads, he said.
“We are now at the place where the availability of the Burns Flat site is intersecting with the growth in technology. As a result, there are now some opportunities opening up that look really very exciting,” McKeever said.
McKeever said the governor has been involved in discussions with some of the space companies and definitely feels different about abolishing the spaceport authority at this time.
“For us to walk away from that at this stage really would be a tragedy,” McKeever said.
Yarbrough and other frustrated Burns Flat officials said they originally supported the spaceport and no one wants success to happen more than they do, but they have heard it all before.
When state lawmakers passed legislation in 1999 creating the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority, state Sen. Gilmer Capps touted the project as potentially “creating some 22,000 jobs, as well as making Oklahoma a player in 21st-century space industries.”
The idea was to take the third-longest civilian airport runway in North America, located at what was once the Clinton-Sherman Air Force Base before its 1969 closure, and use it as a catalyst to attract aerospace companies, including those interested in commercial space flight.
The Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority took over ownership of the 1,950-acre airpark from the city of Clinton in 2006 and enthusiastically began efforts to recruit aerospace companies.
“I think it would have been a great idea if it would have worked,” Ryan said.
It hasn't, he said.
“It appears there's a lot of tax money being spent with very few results,” he said. “There's just nothing that goes on out there. We've lost jobs.”
Yarbrough said the experience has been even more frustrating because western Oklahoma has been experiencing an economic boom fueled by oil and gas exploration.
Industrial parks at nearby Elk City are filled and overflowing with tenants such as Chesapeake Energy Co., Superior Fabrication Inc., Linn Energy and Sandford Oil Co., officials said.
Meanwhile, the airpark at Burns Flat has plenty of space, but few tenants. Yarbrough said potential tenants such as the Delaware Tribe of Indians have complained to town officials that the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority doesn't seem interested in recruiting companies unless they have something to do with aerospace.
Lesa Steele, Delaware Enterprise Authority director for the tribe, agreed.
Steele said the tribe inquired last summer about creating a free-trade zone and putting some businesses in there.
“Basically, the difficulty we had is they just didn't want to have us there,” Steele said. “They said that we could submit a proposal, but that they were not really entertaining the prospect of looking at any economic development that was not aviation oriented.”
The Oklahoma spaceport did attract a business called Rocketplane, but the company stayed just long enough to collect $18 million in state tax credits before leaving for Wisconsin and ultimately declaring bankruptcy.
A large, metal hangar with peeling red paint and the name “Rocketplane” above the door remains at the Burns Flat airpark as a stark reminder that space exploration investments can be risky.
Yarbrough said the community has actually lost businesses as well as recreational opportunities since the state authority took over.
There used to be a medical clinic and pharmacy on airpark property, he said. Now Burns Flat residents have to drive to other communities to see doctors.
The airpark has a nice nine-hole golf course, but the state authority closed it down, he said. The community also has baseball diamonds on airpark property, but kids don't use them anymore because state officials insist on getting liability waivers from everyone before anyone can play there, he said.
“We had about 30 people living in this community who were called crash and rescue,” Manuel said. “Their whole firefighting department was out there at the air base. The spaceport let that contract go, so the Air Force brings firefighters up here from Altus every day.”
“It's killing our local economy,” Yarbrough said. “A state entity has come in here and basically choked us out. ... In many ways it has been an albatross around our necks.”