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Pima County to foot bill for World View balloon spaceport

The Pima County Board of Supervisors agreed Tuesday to front $14.5 million to build a factory and launch facility on the South Side. World View will pay rent for 20 years on the facility on Aerospace Parkway near Tucson International Airport. The company plans to offer space tourism and launch instruments via manned balloons ascending into the stratosphere.

The board voted 4-1 — with Supervisor Ally Miller dissenting after some heated questioning of company representatives — for a deal that will see the county fund the construction of a 120,000-square-foot manufacturing building, corporate headquarters and large concrete pad "space port" near Raytheon Missile Systems.

World View founders Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum, who were crew members of the Biosphere 2 experiment and also partners in local tech firm Paragon before leaving in 2014 to pursue investors for the new company, have refused to make public many financial details of the company, but said they have investors lined up and contracts for launches that require them to have the building constructed by October.

In addition to space tourism flights that are projected to cost $75,000 per passenger on what Poynter described as "very high-tech, high-altitude ballons," World View fill focus on carrying scientific instruments and communications gear nearly to the edge of space, the couple said.

The company plans to expand from about 25 workers now to about 400 employees over five years, they said, pledging that most of their hires would come from the Tucson area. Poynter said the company plans to manufacture "hundreds of balloons" by its second year of operation at the facility.

World View will pay rent on the facility for 20 years, totaling about $23.6 million. The cost to taxpayers, after interest is included, will be about $20 million. Supervisors in favor of the deal, such as Ramon Valadez, pointed out that it holds the potential of being profitable for the county.

Miller repeatedly mentioned the lack of financial details, and said the deal was too risky an investment for the county. County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry didn't detail which county properties would be effectively mortgaged to support the certificates of participation that will underwrite the deal.

"I'd like to look over your business plan, on behalf of the taxpayers," Miller said. Poynter and MacCallum said they didn't have a copy of the document with them, but would meet with Miller in the future.

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While saying that there were "parts of this proposal that look like pie in the sky," Supervisor Richard Elias said he thought the potential upside was too great to pass up, and voted for the deal.

World View would have the option to purchase the facility for $10 after all of the lease payments were made. Poynter and MacCallum said locations in Florida and New Mexico also were considered for the project.

The pair said they had major institutional investors backing the company, and were planning on installing millions of dollars worth of equipment in the new facility. They declined to specify who those investors were, and didn't detail why they couldn't raise private backing for the construction.

County officials said the project should have total economic impact of $3.5 billion over 20 years, with the company having a $25.3 million annual payroll by 2020.

The couple said the company plans to work with NASA and the Pentagon, as well as with private firms, in launching gear up to 100,000 feet — at 20 miles up, nearly the edge of space.

The company plans to use an eight-person capsule carried aloft by a balloon during its tourist flights, providing a near-space view that "only astronauts have seen."

"This is how public-private partnerships are supposed to work," Supervisor Sharon Bronson said in a news release. "World View is getting the help it needs to get off the ground, literally, and Pima County is getting the private investment necessary to bring high-wage jobs to our valley."

"Jobs, jobs, jobs. That’s what this is all about," she said. "They’re why we’ve spent four years planning the Sonoran Corridor and they’re why we are continuing to develop it. It’s not just lines on a map. It’s real and it will transform our local economy and spur growth and prosperity for many, many years to come."

World View has launched three manned flights and about 40 unmanned test balloons, including flights from Bisbee and Page.

While the balloons don't fly nearly as high as most conventional definitions of space — most say the edge of space is 50-60 miles up — the company says that the experience for passengers would be much the same as a space launch, if more gentle.

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Because of the high altitude, the Federal Aviation Administration will require World View to license its flights as commercial space launches. That means the launch site will need federal approval as a space port, as well. The company said it's already working with the FAA to receive the necessary OKs.

The commercial space business hasn't yet panned out in New Mexico, where the $219 million investment in Spaceport America, an 18,000-acre facility, has been at risk after the 2014 explosion of VirginGalatic's SpaceShipTwo.

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Click image to enlarge

A rendering of the World View balloon.