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Oklahoma spaceport's blighted buildings rile town officials in 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.
by Randy Ellis Published: January 21, 2013

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.”

by Randy Ellis
Investigative 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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