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City Asks Astronaut’s Firm to Return Funds

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Lancaster City Council has a message for former astronaut L. Gordon Cooper: You’re grounded.

In a closed-door session Tuesday, the city officials decided to pursue legal action against Cooper--one of the original seven “Right Stuff” fliers in the Mercury program--in an attempt to recover the $300,000 they gave his business to relocate to Lancaster.

“The council has given instructions to pursue legal actions to recover the money,” said Stafford Parker, director of the city’s redevelopment agency, which runs the business-attraction program.

The grant, given in 1993, was the first under the city’s business-attraction incentive program. It was supposed to pay the lease on a hangar that Cooper’s company, Galaxy Group Inc., was to use at Fox Field for retrofitting Beechcraft 58P Baron airplanes.

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But not one aircraft was ever refurbished at the site, and Galaxy was eventually evicted.

Now the city, which celebrates the achievements of Edwards Air Force Base test pilots in its Aerospace Walk of Fame, wants its money back. So far, however, Cooper has been shrouded in secrecy and his staff has been in a communications blackout, according to city officials.

“They have ignored communications from the city on at least two or three occasions,” said City Atty. David McEwen, who said he expected to file the lawsuit within a week.

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City officials were positively giddy in June, 1993, when they rolled out the red carpet for Cooper, one of the nation’s first astronauts. He piloted the Mercury 9 space capsule, which completed 22 orbits of the Earth in 1963, and was the command pilot for the Gemini 5 flight in 1965. He retired from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1970.

Under the terms of the five-year agreement, the city paid Galaxy’s lease in return for the promise of 25 full-time jobs, increased sales tax revenues and funding help for its performing arts center. City officials also believed that Cooper’s business would help attract others in what would eventually become a continuous migration of companies to the high desert.

But no planes were retrofitted at Fox Field, and, with the exception of some office furniture that was later placed in storage, Cooper’s company never spent one day in its new digs.

Cooper’s concept to retrofit planes with new, more efficient engines has run into snag after snag, city officials said, citing Cooper’s explanation.

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The company has failed to obtain the $1 million in financing it sought through new investors, Cooper told city officials. The company also failed to win the approval of the Federal Aviation Administration for the concept, which involved replacing piston engines with more efficient turboprop engines.

Cooper told The Times in April, 1994, that the certification process had taken longer and required more money than expected.

McEwen said Galaxy hoped to someday apply the retrofit process used on the Beechcraft planes to other types of aircraft.

A Beechcraft with a turboprop engine can be sold for about $700,000, and Cooper had predicted that his firm would turn out about three each month.

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Despite numerous telephone calls to the company’s Van Nuys office Thursday, no one from Galaxy could be reached for comment.

Parker, who heads the redevelopment agency, says the city’s first venture in the business-attraction program is not a reflection of the failure of the idea, but instead the failure of a single company.

Lancaster’s efforts to attract business to the area with financial inducements have been only moderately successful. Rexhall Industries and Lance Campers Inc., both recreational vehicle manufacturers, have recently begun construction on new facilities.

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Mayor Frank Roberts said city officials harbor no grudge against Cooper and that no one on the council believes the sour deal was intentional.

“We’re not hostile, or trying to get even or anything like that,” Roberts said. If Galaxy moved to Lancaster tomorrow, Roberts said “we would stop all of this right now.”


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