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LAUNCH WINDOW: Space command center could put Aurora into a new orbit
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson’s inbox probably has more mail from Colorado these days. Leaders across the state are lobbying for the new U.S. Space Command to be based here, and they’re making a strong case. Letters from the business community, local elected officials and the state’s congressional delegation have pointed out that Colorado is well-situated for the program because of a flourishing aerospace industry and a growing education sector devoted to engineering and all things space. They’re also quick to highlight that the elevation makes the state “one mile closer to space.”
A memo obtained by CNN points to three states that have apparently made the final cut for future home of the military’s newest combatant command: Alabama, California and Colorado. Aurora’s Buckley Air Force Base is reportedly one of those finalists, as are Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, Peterson Air Force Base, and Schriever Air Force Base. Those three installments are located in Colorado Springs.
Military officials are evaluating the six bases being considered to house U.S. Space Command during in-person tours this week, according to officials with the Aurora Economic Development Council.
This command structure plan is separate from a proposal to create a new military division dedicated to space-based warfare, so far dubbed U.S. Space Force. It also would be independent of the U.S. Air Force Space Command, located at Peterson AFB in Colorado Springs.
President Donald Trump signed a memo ordering the creation of the U.S. Space Command in December. According to the order, the command will assume responsibilities that are space-related and have been previously assigned to the commander of U.S. Strategic Command. Analysts say the new combat command will cost as much as $800 million over the next five years — most of that cost would be in new staff and capital improvement projects to outfit the new post.
Aurora Congressman Jason Crow has led the way in working to persuade Pentagon officials to not just move Colorado to the top of the list of where to locate Space Command, but Crow has pounced on an opportunity to move the center to Aurora’s Buckley Air Force base.
Leaders in both El Paso County and the Aurora-region are vying for the assignment. In Colorado Springs, there are efforts to improve Highway 94, near Schriever Air Force Base. Last week, Gov. Jared Polis sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation requesting that fixes to the road, which serves thousands of military personnel, be “top priority.”
“For months, I have been working to ensure Space Command’s future home is in Colorado Springs. Working with Gov. Jared Polis and CDOT (the Colorado Department of Transportation) to prioritize HWY 94 gets us one step closer towards that reality,” Colorado Springs Congressman Doug Lamborn wrote on Facebook about the dedication to infrastructure projects that could boost chanCes of being awarded the command center.
The pitches from up the road in Aurora are just as spirited. Local government and business officials are pitching the region’s existing aerospace industry as the foundation for why U.S. Space Command should be based in Aurora. It would likely be the biggest economic development venture the city has ever seen.
Aurora Chamber of Commerce president Kevin Hougen said the command center would first bring close to 1,500 jobs and could grow to around 15,000 employees over a number of years if it were to be located in Aurora.
“Those jobs would be a ‘multiplier’ with research grants, manufacturing, higher education training, eventual space launches with the new Space Port at Front Range Airport, tourism, and conferences,” he explained.
Dick Hinson, senior vice president with the Aurora Economic Development Council, said the Space Command workforce would initially comprise about 400 officers, 180 enlisted military members and 900 civilian workers, about 350 of whom would be transferred from their current duties at Peterson Air Force Base. In total, the outfit would bring about 1,100 new employees to Colorado.
The Denver metro region already boasts a large aerospace presence. From 2012 to 2017, the industry saw a 7.3 percent employment increase, according to the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation.
Yuriy Gorlov, another vice president with the Aurora Economic Development Council, estimated there are between 8,000 and 10,000 aerospace industry employees spread across the metroplex. He said adding another 1,000 or so workers with a new Space Command outpost wouldn’t cause an outsized strain on local infrastructure.
On the contrary, Gorlov said the hefty salaries attached to aerospace industry gigs mean more taxable income for the city’s coffers.
“Those kinds of salaries generate a lot more tax base than they take,” he said. “… It’ll help build infrastructure.”
The local Economic Development Corporation reports the average salary in the aerospace industry is $129,730.
Colorado has continuously ranked near the top of the states that earn the most in NASA contracts — the state netted about $1.8 billion in NASA funds in 2016. Gorlov said Colorado is also home to the most concentrated aerospace economy in the country. Although California’s economy in that industry is technically larger, the Centennial state has a more robust market per capita.
Those local resources have helped drawn companies such as Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and United Launch Alliance to Aurora and the Denver metro region. And leaders see that trend continuing if it were to nab the U.S. Space Command headquarters.
Hougen said “in a perfect world” the city would also be able to recruit the Space and Missile Center, located in El Segundo, California. It controls the purchasing of space assets.
“Another challenge,” Hougen said of that effort. “But what a great opportunity.”
Hougen is enthusiastic about what the command could mean for the local economy, to say the least.
“The Space Command in Colorado is what we want, and if by chance it’s at Buckley AFB, it would be the largest economic development project Aurora has ever seen today and into the future,” Hougen said. “We are a mile closer to space!”
That tagline, spun by Crow, has been big in Aurora lately. Just last year the Watkins airport earned a space port designation.
Crow spelled out in letter last week why Buckley would be the right choice for the nation and the region.
“Buckley AFB is a critical Air Force asset in a thriving community that is already home to advanced space assets and hundreds of space-oriented businesses large and small,” Crow said in the letter. “We have been performing the space mission for over 30 years. We are ready to continue leading space into the future and would welcome USSPACECOM openly.”
The Aurora EDC co-signed Crow’s letter.
Buckley AFB, tasked with guarding the nation from nuclear missile security threats, creates a multitude of economic development opportunities for the region. At this year’s State of the Base address, Col. Troy Endicott, commander of Buckley’s 460th Space Wing, reported the base pumped more than $990 million into Aurora’s economy.
Locally, Buckley invested about $157 million in Aurora through construction jobs, materials and other services, according to Air Force calculations. The base supported about 4,300 local jobs last year.
A bustling aerospace industry already exists around Buckley. In his letter, which was addressed to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, Crow highlighted the existing Aerospace Data Facility at Buckley — it employs some 4,000 professionals, 850 of which are NSA personnel.
“These professionals work around the clock, 365 days a year, to keep our country safe from evolving threats domestically and abroad,” the letter said. “The existing workforce, operational infrastructure and talent pool in and around Buckley AFB resulting from ongoing ADF-C operations will fully complement USSPACECOM’s mission.”
Denver’s Democratic U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, Hougen and other local leaders signed that letter, too.
Leaders from the Aurora EDC have been making a hard sell on the ample space and buffer zones that have been painstakingly sculpted around Buckley over the years. City and federal officials have made it a priority to prevent encroachment around the base and keep land on the facility’s fringes properly zoned.
“That’s a huge advantage for us,” Gorlov said. “Buckley definitely does have the space and we probably stand out over other communities because other bases probably aren’t as fortunate to have appropriately zoned land.”
Former Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman helped the base secure about $26 million in congressional Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration Program, known as REPI, funding for base expansion in 2017. Hougen said those dollars helped Buckley acquire more than 1,000 acres through annexation. Much of that process was completed in 2018.
But even if the new command headquarters sets up shop in one of the three potential bases in Colorado Springs, Aurora EDC officials said a Space Command located an hour south could provide ancillary economic benefits to Aurora.
“Space command is going to be spread out,” Gorlov said.
Hinson added that the current commander of the U.S. Air Force Space Command, Gen. John Raymond, is currently stationed at Peterson AFB. In March, President Trump nominated Raymond to serve as commander of the new U.S. Space Command, wherever that may be.
“It would be very convenient to have the commander of U.S. Space Command and Air Force Space Command in Colorado,” Hinson said.
Crow told The Sentinel the Air Force has been quiet about a possible schedule for deciding on when to make an announcement about the command center, but he feels that Aurora is well-positioned with a skilled workforce, top aerospace programs at nearby colleges and by him being the only combat veteran in Colorado’s delegation. Crow said his experience and position within the Armed Services Committee would be helpful with the program.
“It would be very huge for the economy, that’s not an understatement to make,” he said. “It’s certainly a big deal, and we have a strong case to make.”
Hinson estimated government officials could make their decision by the end of the summer.
“That’s just a wild guess,” he said. “It may be even sooner than that.”Content originally published by the Aurora Sentinel on May 2, 2019.