For Steve Howard, developing a commercial rocket launchpad could mean hundreds of jobs for Camden County residents searching for good-paying employment in an exciting industry.
“The spaceport is the catalyst,” said Howard, who serves as the county’s administrator and Spaceport Camden project lead. “What you want is everything else — tourism, manufacturing. It’s giving people hope and opportunity and building for the future.”
But developing new industry on the coast often conflicts with homeowners who are used to a tranquil way of life.
The spaceport project is no different. Property owners and environmentalists say they are concerned by the prospect of rockets launching over their homes and the Cumberland Island National Seashore.
“That’s why we are acting so vigorously in defending our rights to enjoy peace on Little Cumberland Island without rockets flying over our heads,” said Deby Glidden, an Atlanta resident who has owned property on the nearby barrier island for more than 40 years.
Camden officials have spent the past few years trying to secure a license from the Federal Aviation Administration to open on a 12,000-acre facility in Kingsland.
The land, now owned by Bayer CropScience, has been a manufacturing depot for insecticides, chemicals and trip flares over the years. Bayer CropScience, based in Ellenwood, manufactures agricultural pesticides.
Now the federal government will decide whether it will allow satellites, supplies and possibly people to be launched into orbit from the property.
If the FAA approves a site operator license for Camden County, rockets would be launched over portions of Cumberland Island and Little Cumberland Island.
Homeowners hope that doesn’t happen.
Little Cumberland Island has about 100 parcels split among about 60 families, though very few people live there year-round. Homes on the barrier island are valued between $150,000 and $500,000.
Cumberland Island has a handful of year-round residents, but about 60,000 people visit the national seashore annually.
“I don’t believe there is any way the FAA will allow rockets to be launched over private property with people present,” Glidden said.
State Rep. Jason Spencer, who has been a strong advocate for the spaceport, calls the property owners a “vocal minority.” Spencer lost his re-election bid in the Republican primary last month.
“They do not live here,” the Woodbine Republican said. “They come down to their little cottage on Little Cumberland Island, they ferry in from St. Simons and they don’t spend one dime in Camden County.
“They are not residents,” Spencer said. “They are vacationers.”
The tension is something that is playing out across the country.
People relocate from larger cities and see the small coastal towns as a natural treasure that shouldn’t be spoiled. Longtime residents, seeing the new property owners as elitists, have seen their hometowns dry up for lack of jobs and want to help their neighbors and children get work without having to move away.
Making Georgia competitive
“We need the jobs — bottom line,” Spencer said. “We have a one-dimensional economy. We need diversification. These jobs on average pay anywhere from $80,000 to $90,000 a year.”
Camden had a 4 percent unemployment rate in April, slightly higher than the state average. The government is the largest employee in the county, with many residents either working for Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay or the county school system.
According to the Georgia Department of Labor, in 2016, Camden residents made an average annual salary of nearly $41,000. That compares with $50,100 statewide.
In recent years, Spencer has tried to help Camden capitalize on interest from the space industry by sponsoring legislation that makes Georgia more welcoming.
He successfully passed legislation that removes a state licensing regulation for aerospace engineers, shields spaceflight operators from being sued if something goes wrong during a launch and encourages the state Department of Economic Development to recruit the industry to Georgia.
A bill Spencer introduced that would have blocked local governments from regulating noise created by space companies failed.
Howard said he thinks the project will be a catalyst for tourism and manufacturing. He envisions an innovation research park featuring science, technology, engineering and math programs, and startup companies that will support the launchpad.
“It will be inspirational for the next generation,” Howard said. “It’s not thinking outside of the box, it’s thinking outside of the sky.”
Space companies such as Vector and ABL Space Systems have publicly expressed interest in launching their rockets from Camden, with others holding discussions with the county, Howard said.
Not everyone in the state Capitol is ready to embrace the Camden project.
Steven Sainz, the Woodbine Republican who beat Spencer in the primary, isn’t as enthusiastic as his predecessor. There is no Democrat on the November ballot, so Sainz will join the Legislature in January.
Sainz said as long as he can be assured the property rights of those who live in the area are not violated and the environment isn’t harmed, he will support the spaceport.
“I’m not looking to bias the public one way or another on this project,” he said. “At this point it’s at a county level and I commend the county for being creative to make sure we have job growth in southeast Georgia. I think we need it.
On the last day of the legislative session this year, as the House passed the resolution encouraging Georgia officials to pursue the space industry, state Rep. David Knight urged his colleagues to be cautious.
In 2017, Knight introduced a resolution that would have asked the General Assembly to take time to study the impacts a spaceport would have on the Georgia coast. That resolution failed.
Knight, the chairman of the House Game, Fish and Parks Committee, said he worried about the impact the spaceport would have on the ports, fisheries and tourism.
“All I asked was reasonable caution going into it,” the Griffin Republican said from the House floor in March. “Your desk has been littered in here this year with all this propaganda. … It sort of reminds me of when you go up to a used-car salesman who just tries to keep telling you stuff to get you to buy it and to buy it quickly.”
Little Cumberland Island homeowners say they get that same used-car salesman vibe from Andrew Nelson, a Texas-based consultant helping the county secure the spaceport license. That makes them uneasy.
Nelson, a former aerospace executive, says his years of experience in the industry best suit him to lead Camden to get a spaceport of its own.
“These regulations and these rules are complex,” Nelson said. “They are very difficult to understand. There is subtlety laying on top of subtlety.”
Dick Parker, a Hiawassee resident who’s owned a home on Little Cumberland Island since 1993, said Nelson calls the process complex to lull opponents into thinking he’s the only one who understands how things work.
“He will typically remind people that this is really complicated,” Parker said. “He says: ‘I can explain it to you. These homeowners don’t really understand.’ But it’s not that complicated.”
Nelson studied electrical engineering in college and held several aerospace jobs throughout his career.
He left the field for about a decade to study business and work as an investment banker, investing with his wife in small startups, one of which was California-based XCOR Aerospace. Nelson joined the company as the chief operations officer in 2008.
Midland’s failed spaceport
Some homeowners point to Nelson’s leadership role with XCOR and its involvement with a now-failed Texas spaceport. XCOR fell short of its promises to boost the local economy.
Nelson left the company in 2015, shortly before he began to work with Camden.
Midland, Texas, officials gave XCOR more than $10 million in upfront incentives to relocate its operation and help them obtain an FAA site operator license. The license was granted in 2014.
XCOR promised it would create $12 million worth of jobs within six years. The company also said it would develop and launch a passenger space plane to take tourists into suborbital space.
The company advertised itself as having sold hundreds of tickets for the plane at nearly $100,000 a trip, but XCOR never developed the plane, known as the Lynx.
The company filed for bankruptcy last year.
Jason Fisher, a Midland native who is an amateur pilot, said he was always skeptical of XCOR’s ability to deliver on the Lynx.
“A lot of the people in this area didn’t understand what it meant and what technology was or was not behind it,” he said.
Fisher said he understands why some Georgia homeowners are skeptical of the project.
XCOR was the Texas spaceport’s only rocket operator. Midland officials are now determining the best use for the property.
Brent Hilliard, the chairman of the Midland Development Corp.’s board, said he thinks it’s misguided to single out Nelson. Hilliard worked with Nelson and XCOR in pursuing the spaceport.
“I think Andrew is very qualified in the sense that he understands the business. He’s been in it a long time,” Hilliard said. “If they were to get Andrew fired, there are a host of other people that are far more knowledgeable that can come in and get it licensed.”
Camden paid Nelson $761,505.82 between July 2015 and April 2018 in consulting fees and expense reimbursements. The county has spent about $3.5 million in its pursuit of the spaceport so far.
Homeowners and environmentalists
It’s not uncommon for homeowners to team with environmentalists to maintain a certain quality of life while also protecting natural resources.
In 2016, homeowners and conservationists in California worked together to stop a large mixed-use development with homes, a resort and retail on coastal property in Orange County.
“When you can build a coalition of various groups who share a common goal, you have a much better chance of success,” said Terry Welsh, the founder and president of the Banning Ranch Conservancy. “All, for various reasons, wanted to preserve Banning Ranch as open space, and each group was important in our success.”
Welsh said while some adjacent homeowners were concerned about the environmental impact, others bristled at the potential for increased traffic through their neighborhoods.
In Georgia, Little Cumberland Island property owners are leading the push against Spaceport Camden.
Laura Montgomery, a former manager of the space law branch of the FAA, said the agency will do an assessment to determine the level of risk associated with launching rockets over the islands.
“They’ll count all the people, do a bunch of math and say, ‘you pass’ or ‘you don’t,’ ” she said. “The FAA will make sure that it’s possible that some launch operator could launch a rocket out of that site.”
First, the FAA must approve an environmental impact statement.
The agency accepted public comments on the project through Thursday and will issue a final environmental impact statement at some point in the coming months. Camden still would have to clear several steps, including a separate location safety review, before it could be awarded a permit for the project.
“Can I tell you for certain that the FAA is going to approve the site? No,” Nelson said. “And anyone who does tell you that, or the opposite, is lying.”
Glidden said she hopes the FAA understands the impact of allowing rocket launches over her home.
“Little Cumberland Island is where my heart, my peace and serenity are,” she said. “My primary life is in Atlanta, but my serenity is on Little Cumberland. To ignore us is to hit me in my heart.”