Spaceport gets mixed reception in Truth or Consequences

When residents of this isolated place voted in 2008 to tax themselves to pay for an audacious redevelopment scheme -- construction of a commercial spaceport in the desert -- Kim Audette was an ardent supporter.

She expressed her backing in a typically quirky Truth or Consequences manner -- sprinkling herself with “space dust” and playing pro-spaceport songs on her pink violin in a local park.

That was then. Now Audette’s performances include ditties denouncing local officials who support the project.

As workers pave a 2-mile-long runway at a facility due to open in 2011, the $225-million Spaceport America project has hit its first earthbound speed bump. Trucks hauling gravel rumbled through Truth or Consequences’ tiny downtown this fall, upsetting some businesses and residents who complained about congestion and pollution.

Gary Whitehead, a member of the Spaceport Commission and former county commissioner, says those critics are wary of the looming transformation of their sleepy town of about 7,000.

“We’re really changing who we are as a community,” he said. “We’re a pretty small town; it’s been pretty simple here for a while.”

But some critics say their complaints lie with the local power structure, not space travel.

“I came here because there’s a spaceport being built,” said Brad Grower, 46, who moved to town in 2009 and hopes to start a business selling electric bicycles. “This town is going to experience a renaissance.”

Located about 150 miles south of Albuquerque, Truth or Consequences is accustomed to unusual attempts at urban renewal.

In 1950, the popular game show “Truth or Consequences” promised to broadcast from the first town to adopt its name. Hot Springs, named for the thermal springs that bubbled up from the Rio Grande as it ran through downtown, jumped at the chance and reveled in the publicity. It still celebrates the May anniversary of host Ralph Edwards’ broadcast from the town.

But the odd name is about all the region has had going for it economically. The median household income is $23,000, well below the state’s $41,000. Ranching and tourism are among the few ways to make a living.

Until, that is, the spaceport opens.

Since the 1990s, boosters in southern New Mexico have dreamed of opening a commercial spaceport that, theoretically, could cash in on a rush of millionaires willing to pay top dollar to launch into orbit.

The area already has a scientific bent -- the first atomic bomb was tested in the empty desert here, and White Sands Missile Range ensures jet-free skies and a local supply of engineers and aviation experts.

Gov. Bill Richardson in 2002 secured state funding for the enterprise and wooed billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic to be the anchor tenant. Construction began in June and is scheduled to end in 2011.

The facility, to consist of hangars, a terminal and the runway, may garner additional tenants if commercial space travel proves popular. The project is under the jurisdiction of the Spaceport Commission, a state agency.

Part of the project’s funding came from a half-cent sales tax that Sierra County voters approved by 66% in 2008. Many remain enthusiastic about the project.

“The spaceport is an excellent fit for T or C,” said local bookstore owner Rhonda Brittan, using the local shorthand for the town, “because it’s so wacky.”

The town is unremarkable at first glance -- a collection of gas stations, ranch houses and trailer parks nestled in the bends of the Rio Grande.

Only on closer inspection do its eccentricities come to light: shops with names like Energy Art and Little Sprout Market & Juice Bar line its 1950s-era downtown.

The trucks began rumbling through in October, hauling gravel from a pit on the south end of town to the spaceport site 35 miles away. Residents and downtown business owners complained about the noise and exhaust and feared that the trucks could destabilize buildings erected on the fragile soil above the hot springs.

Brittan was one who initially complained, but she said the construction company responded quickly and began running its trucks slowly and unobtrusively. “I think because concerns were raised, everybody snapped to and was extra cautious,” she said.

Some residents, however, remain skeptical.

Leigh Lily Throckmorton, a home healthcare aide who joined a protest of people who walked across downtown streets to snarl truck traffic, was later arrested by sheriff’s deputies for crossing in front of a truck. (She said she was shopping.) She spent three days in jail.

“It’s environmentally totally irresponsible to use fuel to take people into space,” Throckmorton said. “What they do in Central America is they go into the rural community and take their land. That’s what they’re doing here.”

Activists discovered that the mine south of town did not have all of its state permits; the construction company said it would no longer haul gravel from the site, noting that it had completed that phase of work.

The skirmish is part of a long-running battle that has led to some of the activists being banned from speaking during public-comment periods at city commission meetings.

“There’s a very conservative faction in town, as well as a bunch of retired hippies who are used to being in the streets,” Brittan said.

Whitehead, the spaceport commissioner, dismissed the critics as relentlessly negative. “I’m on the hospital board, and they oppose everything we do there too,” he said.

On a recent day, Whitehead drove down the winding desert road to the spaceport site, pointing out new bridges and paved roads along the way that benefit residents. He paused by a trailer on the construction site housing workers from a local company. “Fifty local jobs,” he said.

Whitehead imagined a future in which high-tech jobs and wealthy tourists flocked to the region. In fact, he sounded vaguely like activists such as Audette, who, despite their mounting concerns, still hold out hope that the spaceport will improve the area.

“Everybody’s for the spaceport,” Audette said.