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Astronaut Has Trouble Launching His Business : Relocation: Lancaster gave L. Gordon Cooper $300,000 to move plane modification firm to Fox Field. He may be evicted.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

L. Gordon Cooper, who made history by orbiting Earth as a Mercury astronaut, is having trouble getting his airplane modification business off the ground in Lancaster.

Cooper’s landlord at Fox Field in Lancaster has posted an eviction notice at the office building and hangar where Cooper hopes to refit twin-engine propeller planes with more powerful turbine engines.

Lancaster city officials are worried about the $300,000 they gave Cooper’s company, Galaxy Group Inc., to encourage the firm to relocate to Lancaster from Van Nuys. The City Council will meet with its attorney behind closed doors Monday night to discuss legal options regarding the relocation money.

On Friday, Cooper, a 67-year-old Encino resident, was still working out of his old offices near Van Nuys Airport, trying to raise more money for his business.

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“We’ve had some delays in getting up there (to Lancaster),” he said in an interview. “In order to go at full speed, we needed to get a certain amount of financing in place. It’s been very slow in coming in. That’s caused us some delays in our timetable.”

Before his company can begin installing the new turbine engines, the project must be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration. The certification process has taken longer and required more money than expected, the former astronaut said.

Cooper said he must raise another $1 million from investors to complete the certification process and begin production work in Lancaster.

Meanwhile, he acknowledged that his company has had trouble making rent payments on its Lancaster hangar and offices, which the firm has rarely used.

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The landlord’s eviction notice triggered alarm at Lancaster City Hall. City officials fear that without the buildings at Fox Field, Cooper’s company will not be able to live up to the terms of its relocation agreement.

“The deal doesn’t allow him to be evicted,” said Steven H. Dukett, the city’s redevelopment director.

In April, 1993, the city’s redevelopment agency agreed to give $300,000 to Cooper’s company, providing he moved it to Lancaster and offered 25 local jobs for at least five years. The city also expected to reap sales tax revenue when the firm sold its costly aircraft engines locally.

Cooper predicted that his firm would retrofit three planes per month, at a cost of about $700,000 per plane.

In return for the relocation money, Galaxy Group gave a 17% stake in the company to the foundation that supports the Lancaster Performing Arts Center. At the time, city officials said this stake was worth as much as $500,000.

Before the deal was approved, the city of Lancaster hired an aviation consultant, who gave Galaxy a favorable review, Dukett said.

When Galaxy’s anticipated move was announced, Lancaster officials hailed the relocation agreement as the launch of a business incentive program aimed at luring new industrial employers to town. Now, the Galaxy project’s future is uncertain. “The eternal optimist within me is certainly hopeful that the project will be able to go forth,” Dukett said. “But I don’t know whether it will or not.”

“It’s a little premature to know exactly what we can and can’t do,” Mayor Frank Roberts said Friday. “Obviously the city is very anxious to protect its interests and its investment.”

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Cooper said it has been tough attracting investors to aviation projects, partly because of the potential for costly lawsuits if an accident occurs. Nevertheless, he said Friday that his company is “pretty optimistic about getting some investment in.”

The former astronaut said he hopes Lancaster officials will give him more time. “I think they need to have a little patience,” Cooper said. “We’re doing the best we can.”


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