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Virgin Galactic, Operators of Spaceport America, Eyeing Plans for Luxury Hotel to
Accommodate Guests Spending $200K a Seat to be Launched into Suborbital Space

By Diana M. Alba, Las Cruces Sun-News, N.M.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

May 01, 2011--LAS CRUCES -- Truth or Consequences boasts a hodgepodge of local attractions: an expansive lake and tandem state park, a downtown full of quirky art museums and shops and a lineup of natural hot springs.

Not on the list?

An upscale hotel.

But that may be about to change.

The area will need luxury lodging to accommodate the tourists who plan to launch into suborbital space at Spaceport America, said Julia Tizard, operations manager for Virgin Galactic, the British company planning to launch spaceflights 30 miles away from T or C.

That's because plenty of spaceflight passengers -- some 420 have made paid reservations so far -- will want more high-end amenities than the area now offers, she said.

"We're specifically focusing on our customers," she said, addressing spaceport officials last week.

Passengers must pay $200,000 for a seat onboard the spaceflight launches that are now expected to start in the first quarter of 2013.

Virgin Galactic is working with "third parties" in developing proposals for the hotel, to be built near the spaceport, Tizard said. But she said can't release further details now.

When Do-a Ana and Sierra counties separately considered imposing spaceport sales taxes in 2007 and 2008, many residents took aim at the spaceport proposal, arguing that it wasn't an investment but rather a way to use taxpayer dollars for sending wealthy people to space.

The spaceport tax, by promoting the spaceport, was meant to draw in

visitors and boost the economy, said T or C resident Linda Burnett. But a new hotel could keep visitors from spending their dollars at existing hotels, she said, defeating the purpose of the tax.

"People love our little, tiny places for hot springs," she said. "It's meant to be kind of the opposite of corporate America. I really think it's bad of ... government to assess a tax on an area and then say to that area: 'Well, you know, you're just not good enough.'"

Talk of the hotel proposal has been circulating in T or C in recent weeks.

Former spaceport board member Kent Evans, whose term ended at the start of the year, said a group of tourism experts who toured southern New Mexico last fall surveyed the attractions and "really assessed what was available." One conclusion, he said, was that a luxury hotel is needed.

"We got some good hotels and stuff, but not like what some of these people paying $200,000 are used to," he said. "I do think there's a need for that."

There has never been a plan for the state Spaceport Authority, the governing board for Spaceport America, to invest in the hotel, Evans said.

Sid Brian, owner of T or C's The Pelican Spa, which is also a small hotel, said he doesn't see a problem with luxury lodging being constructed, as long as it genuinely is a high-end hotel and stays that way. Sometimes, those operations reduce prices simply to fill rooms, he noted.

"If there was some way around that, I wouldn't have any objection," he said. "If it's a total luxury hotel, I don't think it would hurt us."

The hotel is an example of the type of private industry spaceport officials hope to see flourish, though the Spaceport Authority doesn't currently have the staffing to promote those types of projects, said Spaceport Authority Chairman Rick Holdridge.

"That's exactly what we want to see happen -- the privatization of the peripheral things," he said.

Spaceport officials have said the project will draw in not only Virgin Galactic passengers, but also space enthusiasts who want to view launches and the spaceport site.

At least one Las Cruces hotel, Hotel Encanto, is trying to catch the attention of spaceport tourists. A section of its website highlights the spaceport, and its proximity, "less than an hour from Hotel Encanto."

April 25, Virgin Galactic Vice President Will Pomeranz addressed the New Mexico Commercial Real Estate Development Association, NAOIP, in Albuquerque. Another Virgin Galactic official had been slated to speak about the potential for development projects around the spaceport, but had to cancel at the last minute because of a personal emergency.

Association Chairman Drew Dolan said he's not aware of the proposal for a hotel or other development projects planned in connection with the spaceport. He said, however, Spaceport America is a "game-changer in terms of economic development opportunities in the state or in the nation or in the world.

"Being that the concept is so unique and so engaging, it's very fascinating, and it's great that the state of New Mexico has the opportunity to be one of the frontrunners in this globally," he said.

Diana M. Alba can be reached at (575) 541-5443.

On the Web

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Copyright (c) 2011, Las Cruces Sun-News, N.M.

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