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Thursday, November 15, 2012 - 7:55pm
LAS CRUCES, NM — New Mexico's quarter-billion-dollar Spaceport America could be in trouble after its major tenant hints at pulling out if state liability law isn't changed.
Virgin Galactic said Thursday it might not stick around if state lawmakers whose annual session begins in January don't change the law to better protect the space industry from lawsuits.
"We are going to look hard at what happens this session in terms of our future stance with the spaceport, Virgin Galactic President and CEO George Whitesides said.
The Spaceport in southeastern Sierra County is nearly complete, and Virgin Galactic is ready to go. However, it's the only big company out there.
"The deal we signed up for was a bustling spaceport that had multiple tenants there," Whitesides continued. "I have to tell you, spaceport is losing opportunity to get new business."
Proponents blame that on the failure of New Mexico to pass a law that protects manufacturers, suppliers and everyone else who builds and maintains spacecraft from liability lawsuits.
Right now only Virgin Galactic is protected. The bill has failed twice, and aerospace companies are going to other states that have it like Colorado, Texas, Florida and Virginia.
"It's a business decision, and I can tell you right now New Mexico is perceived as having a hostile business environment for high-tech industries," said Rick Holdridge, chairman of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority.
Spaceport boosters are now joining forces and have created a coalition to lobby lawmakers this upcoming session.
One lawmaker who was key to stopping the bill last session, Sen. Lisa Curtis, D-Albuquerque, will not be back next year.
With a lot of new blood in the Roundhouse after the recent election, there is hope this will be the session to do it. The lobbying group says if something doesn't change, the spaceport and the state's economy are at serious risk.
"It's about jobs," Raton Public Schools Superintendent Dave Wilden said. "We are losing families every week who are moving to other states to try to get jobs."
"Spaceport America offers the opportunity to not only put more people to work but to put them to work for the long haul," added Richard Holcomb of the Tourism Association of New Mexico.
As for Virgin Galactic?
"We are fighting to stay here," Whitesides said Gov. Susana Martinez has said she will sign the bill if it makes it to her desk.
So far 546 people have signed up for a trip into space aboard Virgin Galactic's spacecraft. Flights currently are scheduled to start some time next year.