Quiet NM Town Divided on Eve of Crucial Spaceport Vote

The small, quiet town of Truth or Consequences, NM – best known for its thriving arts community and its access to hot springs and the state’s largest lake – has been thrust into the center of a debate over our future in space.

On Tuesday, voters in this community of 7,000 will help decide the fate of Spaceport America, New Mexico’s ambitious effort to build a gateway to the heavens. Residents in T or C and throughout Sierra County will vote on a .25 cent increase in the gross receipts tax to help fund the $198 million facility in the southern part of the county. A “yes” vote is crucial to forming a tax district with neighboring Doña Ana and Otera counties.

The Las Cruces Sun-News reports that the vote could go either way. A pro-spaceport tax group, People for Aerospace, has been campaigning heavily throughout Sierra County, promoting the project’s economic benefits. However, other residents have opposed the tax increase, placing anti-tax signs on T or C streets and staging a rally over the weekend.

Supporters say the spaceport would put the county front and center in the emerging and lucrative commercial space industry. New Mexico is negotiating with Virgin Galactic to become an anchor tenant at the facility. Richard Branson’s London-based company will send tourists on suborbital flights aboard SpaceShipTwo for $200,000 apiece.

In recent weeks, other companies have agreed to use the spaceport, including Lockheed Martin, UP Aerospace, and Microgravity Enterprises. NASA also has pledged to conduct tests at the desert facility. The recent burst of announcements seems designed to show that the spaceport will have a variety of users, not just joy-riding millionaires.

Supporters are predicting victory, although it may be a narrow one. Last year, Doña Ana County voters approved the tax increase by just 270 votes out of 17,700 ballots cast. Otera County residents have yet to vote on the plan.

“I think there’s a big base of progressive voters in Sierra County,” T or C Lori Montgomery told the Sun-News. “The business people, the education community are all looking to the growth of the county. … I think there are some people that are concerned not necessarily with the tax but with the growth. That’s partially why people are, maybe against it.”

Demographics make even a small tax increase challenging. Almost 21 percent of Sierra County’s nearly 13,000 residents live below the poverty line. More than 28 percent of residents are 65 years or older, a group likely to be retired and living on a fixed income. And Sierra County’s median household income in 2004 was only $23,821, less than two-thirds of New Mexico’s $37,838 median income.

Some Sierra County residents have been won over by the fact that one-quarter of tax’s $308,000 in annual revenues would be devoted to education.