Camden County’s proposed spaceport: Lifesaver or coast-killer?

Controversial project moves forward in coastal Georgia

Camden County spaceport

CAMDEN COUNTY, GA (WTOC) - You could watch rockets launch right off the Georgia coast if state and local leaders get their wish. A proposed commercial spaceport is either financial and environmental suicide for Camden County and our coastline or a once-in-a-generation investment that sets Georgia up for decades to come. It just depends on who you ask.

Earlier this year, Camden County became the first county government in the nation to ever apply to the FAA for a launch site operator license for the Camden Spaceport. They hope to be approved within 12 months. The idea first came up seven years ago. Basically, the county is taking an approach that’s never been done.

The spaceport would serve as a facility for private companies to use to launch rockets. The county manager said it would also attract development and jobs to an area that desperately needs it. The proposed site sends rockets over Cumberland and Little Cumberland Islands, not too far from nearby Jekyll Island.

“Space exploration is fascinating,” said Jim Renner. “That’s a bad place to launch rockets from.”

Renner is an admitted space fanatic. He is also a fierce advocate for the coast, volunteering with the 100 miles organization that aims to preserve Georgia’s coastline.

“We’ve got the cleanest water, a productive fishery. It supports billions of dollars in tourism and commercial fishing,” Renner said. “Why would we risk that for a couple launches that are not going to generate any revenue?”

Jim Renner owns property on Little Cumberland Island
Jim Renner owns property on Little Cumberland Island (Source: WTOC)

The proposed launch site is just across the Cumberland River on Floyd's Neck. It’s people on Little Cumberland Island who are so fearful of a launch.

“With Cumberland Island National seashore here, that just seals the deal,” Renner said. “That’s the dumbest idea I ever heard.”

Renner fears an explosion over Little Cumberland would ignite a fire in the tree canopy that they can’t put out. There are limited tools to fight fire on the island. Financially, he thinks the project is bad for county taxpayers – pointing out that commercial spaceports don’t make money. Financial statements for spaceports in Alaska and Virginia show they do survive largely off subsidies.

The man in charge of this project said comparing this project to others isn’t apples to apples though.

“A 21st Century spaceport is going to look a lot different than a 20th century,” said Steve Howard, Camden County’s Administrator and Spaceport leader. “It gives you some opportunity to be competitive but also the state of Georgia to actually enter this new space race as well."

Howard said other spaceports have high costs for infrastructure; this project calls for private companies to cover most of the infrastructure cost. He defined the spaceport as a ‘once-in-a-generation’ opportunity.

“You’ve got to be visionary. You’ve got to look at some things, but you’ve also got to do something different for your community,” Howard said.

Howard said Camden County will just provide the site to launch the rockets. The land they want to put the project on was owned by Union Carbide. It’s one of the few undeveloped pieces of property on the Eastern coast.

Howard said there was an operational manufacturing facility there until about five years ago, and this is a great way to turn what he called a ‘stranded asset’ into one that can be leveraged. In addition to the launch revenue, he said it will keep Georgia talent and innovation in the state and encourage development around the launch site.

Steve Howard goes over environmental steps in application process
Steve Howard goes over environmental steps in application process (Source: WTOC)

“Launching rockets, yeah that’s part of the process,” Howard said. “The catalyst, what we want - manufacturing jobs, STEM programs, tourism, all those opportunities to build for the future to give Camden a chance.”

The revenue on launch fees is tough to project. The county has not set the cost for launching a rocket here. The goal is to have 12 launches a year with fees possibly costing $1 million or more per launch. According to the FAA, there were only 30 launches in the US last year. Most of the launches happened in California at Vandenburg Air Force Base and Florida at Cape Canaveral. The number is projected to double by fiscal year 2020 – although the agency pointed out the rapid growth in commercial spaceflight makes it tough to predict.

Howard disagreed with the idea they’re wasting money. He said the investment in the spaceport is only two percent of the county’s overall annual budget over seven years, or about $6 million. However, Camden County’s financial records make it tough to pinpoint a number; the Spaceport is listed in the Special Appropriations section, not by itself.

This is from a test launch at the site in 2017. It's a Vector rocket.
This is from a test launch at the site in 2017. It's a Vector rocket. (Source: Camden County)

“All things considered, there’s risk in doing something, risk in doing nothing. If [the FAA] said today it couldn’t be accomplished, and they have not told us that to date, so we continue to work this process until someone says in fact it can’t be done,” said Howard.

Renner’s just not sold.

“We already have an incredible tourist economy. Any additive effect of watching a rocket launch is minuscule,” Renner said. “Again, I say, not worth the risk.”

Opponents of the spaceport are also concerned that mandatory evacuations violate their property rights. It’s not clear what impact launches would have on evacuations. The opportunity to submit your comment for or against the spaceport has passed.

Howard pointed to a UGA survey of folks in the 13 coastal Georgia counties. In Camden County, about 70 percent of roughly 450 people surveyed support it. In the other counties, 61 percent of about 500 people surveyed support it.

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