Officials defend spaceport efforts

Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority officials say now is the time to accelerate — not abandon — efforts to turn the airpark here into a booming spaceport.
by Randy Ellis Published: January 21, 2013

“It's been very disheartening,” he said. “We inherited the buildings in terrible condition.”

Locals complaining

Numerous people have complained that the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority hasn't done enough to attract non-aerospace businesses, but officials are trying, Khourie said.

The airpark is a federally funded general aviation airport and a former strategic air command base, which means there are certain federal rules that will inhibit many economic development projects, regardless of who is in control of the facility, he said.

Some have criticized agency officials for refusing to sell tracts of land to companies that want to locate there, but federal rules don't allow the land to be sold, he said.

The authority has tried to accommodate companies by offering 99-year leases, but some companies don't like that, he said.

“An act of Congress would be needed to change that,” he said.

Khourie said he's not aware of any company being told it was not welcome because it was not space related.

Town leaders complained to The Oklahoman that the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority ran off a pharmacy and health clinic on airpark property by raising rent, but Khourie said those rumors are false.

“They did not have enough business to keep the facility going,” Khourie said. “We even offered to lower the rent and work with them any way we could, but they said there just wasn't enough business to justify keeping the place open.”

Khourie said the airpark golf course has been a fiasco. “We had an entity that was taking care of the golf course and someone sprayed and killed every one of the greens with Round Up,” he said. “An effort was made to re-establish them, but … the operator did not water them. It wasn't a good situation.”

Khourie said officials had no choice but to close the golf course after the greens were poisoned, but hope to one day re-establish them so the course can be reopened.

Khourie said it was state officials outside his state agency who decided that everyone who wants to play at airpark ball diamonds should be required to sign liability waivers. Town officials blame the decision for killing baseball opportunities for Burns Flat children.

Khourie said it also was not the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority's decision to terminate local workers who used to hold crash and rescue jobs at the airpark.

“That was a decision of the Department of Defense and Air Force,” he said.

Workers are now bused in from Altus Air Force Base, officials said.

Khouri said a little over $8 million in state funds have been spent on the facility during the past 11 years. The agency also receives funds from other sources, including the military which still extensively uses the runway for practice landings and take offs.

The agency is governed by a seven-member board whose members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.

A former state representative, Jack Bonny, is the chairman of the board.

Bonny said he believes agency officials have accomplished a lot, but could have accomplished more with more money.

“I don't think by any means we've hurt economic development,” Khourie said. “We're trying to do everything we can to market aerospace research and development, manufacturing and overhaul facilities for aerospace.”

“Within the realm of aerospace, we have prospects on the space side, we have prospects on the aeronautical flight test research and development side and we have prospects on the unmanned aerial systems side,” he said. “It's here. It has just been slow developing.”

Former board member Gilmer Capps, one of the state Senate authors of legislation that created the spaceport, said he hopes Oklahomans continue to support the spaceport.

“I'd hate to see them give it up,” he said.

“I still think the space industry is going to be one of the major things in our future,” Capps said.

by Randy Ellis
Capitol Bureau Reporter
For the past 30 years, staff writer Randy Ellis has exposed public corruption and government mismanagement in news articles. Ellis has investigated problems in Oklahoma's higher education institutions and wrote stories that ultimately led to two...
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