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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

— 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.”

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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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