Though the California Space Authority recently broke off plans with the Air Force for a California Space Center, the nonprofit group may have already found love on the rebound in Lompoc. And both sides are hoping it’s a marriage made in heaven.
Designed as a “bigger and better” version of Cape Canaveral’s Kennedy Space Center, the original plans for the Space Center included an outdoor amphitheater to view live rocket launches, nearly 500,000 square feet of buildings, an IMAX-style movie theater, and a park.
On March 25, the CSA simultaneously announced it had scrapped negotiations with the Air Force Real Property Agency on a lease for the project’s 71-acre site at Vandenberg Air Force Base, and revealed the group’s Board of Directors had voted to explore moving the project to Lompoc, near the campus of Allan Hancock College.
“We’re exploring and taking all this information back to our committee that’s working with us on this,” said CSA Executive Director Andrea Seastrand.
The CSA originally approached the Air Force with the idea of leasing land off of Highway 1 in 2004. Negotiations appeared on track until earlier this month, when the Air Force determined the center was a private project and would be subjected to Santa Barbara County land-use regulations before a lease could be signed.
Then, the county informed the CSA the land hadn’t been zoned and could take three to five years to complete the regulatory process. The CSA’s board terminated talks.
Seastrand said she thought the decision meant an end to the project, but after meeting with Lompoc Mayor John Linn, she put the option of relocating the project to the city before the board. Their response was surprisingly enthusiastic, she said.
According to Linn, Lompoc City Attorney Joe Pannone and City Administrator Laurel Barcelona are working on an exclusive negotiating agreement with the CSA, the equivalent of a lease, while undergoing the state’s environmental (CEQA) process.
“We are, as a city council, 100 percent unified in moving this project forward,” Linn said.
Vandenberg spokesman Jeremy Eggers said base officials had supported the enhanced use lease with Air Force Real Property, while making sure government interests—including adequate security measures and provision of utilities to the site—were represented.
“We wish CSA all the best in the future as they look to work with the city of Lompoc,” Eggers said in an e-mail.
If the CSA decides to move the center to the new 82-acre site, construction would hinge on completion of the CEQA process, which could take at least a year, according to CSA’s Deputy Director and General Counsel Janice Dunn.
However, Linn said the process could be far quicker than at Vandenberg because environmental studies have already been completed in parts of the land.
“We have similar regulations [to the county], but we perhaps have a different interpretation and the desire to move things forward,” Linn said.
The purpose of the endeavor, according to CSA’s Seastrand, is to showcase California’s space enterprise and inspire youth to seek careers in the space industry.
CSA officials said the sites adjacent to the Hancock campus could be integrated with the center, though details with the school have yet to be hammered out. According to Dunn, the CSA hopes students will be able to be mentored by launch personnel.
The new site would be completely under city control and would incorporate much of the project’s original blueprints, though the conceptual design would have to be revised.
The project’s senior architect, Ray Deutsch, said the site differs from the former in that its terrain is hilly and not a flat rectangle as was the original.
“Now we have to decide what will fit where,” Deutsch said. “It’s going to be a challenge, but I think out of that will come some opportunities to do some things we couldn’t do at the other site.”
Among the advantages: Developers won’t be bound by anti-terror restrictions, as Vandenberg required, enabling the parking lot to be located closer to the facility and structures to be built taller.
Once the center is open, Mayor Linn said the city is poised to reap the economic benefit. A study produced by park-operating firm Delaware North estimated the area would receive about 500,000 visitors per year as a result, while an economic impact study predicted the project would create about 1,700 direct jobs and 1,200 indirect jobs.
“It’s the perfect storm on the good side, where everything just comes together and is working perfectly,” Linn said. “Opportunity pounded—it didn’t knock.”
For the next step, CSA’s Dunn said she expects a draft of an Environmental Needs Assessment on April 1 to take before the board on April 8. So far, the group isn’t venturing a guess at an opening date for the center.
The CSA has spent about $2.5 million on the project so far, and as a result of the change of plans, will have to reapply for grants from the Department of Commerce, California State Parks, and the Santa Barbara Foundation. So far, the CSA has received about $200,000 and will be looking for more donors to add to its “launch team.” Loans and grants will be used for Phase 1 of construction, and bonds will be issued in phases two and three.
“People need jobs, and they’re hungry for this,” CSA’s Seastrand said.
Jeremy Thomas is a staff writer for New Times’ sister paper, the Santa Maria Sun. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.