A Possible Win for 'Economic Development,' A Definite Loss for Transparency

Why were Burqueños kept in the dark on the 'pitch' for Space Command HQ?

The short list has been announced, and Albuquerque’s on it.

The Duke City is officially one of six finalists to host what site-selection consultant John Boyd called “the most coveted economic development project out there today.”

A state-of-the-art factory? A sprawling logistics hub? An R&D campus?

None of the above. It’s the home base for United States Space Command (USSPACECOM). Communities fiercely contended to claim the jobs — as well as prestige — that will come from landing the facility. On Thursday, New Mexico joined Texas, Nebraska, Florida, Colorado, Alabama, and Texas in surviving “the first round of cuts.”

But despite the Pentagon’s declaration that the face-off would be “transparent,” the officials pursuing the headquarters were almost entirely unwilling to publicly disclose their application documents. More than a few taxpayers might find that a curious posture.

First, some terminology clarification. USSPACECOM is not the United States Space Force (USSF), a new branch of the military “that organizes, trains, and equips … forces in order to protect U.S. and allied interests in space.” It is a unified combatant command, a joint-warfare organization, reactivated in the summer of 2019 and provisionally housed at Colorado’s Peterson Air Force Base. USSPACECOM “conducts operations in, from, and to space to deter conflict, and if necessary, defeat aggression, deliver space combat power … and defend U.S. vital interests with allies and partners.”

It’s a distinction that means very little to competing jurisdictions’ local-state-federal pols, “business” boosters, and reporters, who since May, have salivated over the Pentagon’s revised “approach for determining the permanent location of U.S. Space Command headquarters.” (The previous process, certain members of Congress complained, “was unfair and not transparent enough.”)

Boyd estimated that in addition to “1,500 highly paid workers” and “$1 billion in construction costs,” the HQ’s “economic benefit to the selected region will be enormous when factoring in new tax revenue and the bump it will give the housing and retail markets.” Boosted “corporate travel and tourism revenue and opportunities for philanthropic, advertising and sponsorship opportunities for regional programs” are additional perks.

The headquarters sweepstakes would draw significant interest in normal times. In an economy battered by COVID-19 lockdowns, landing USSPACECOM’s brain trust is an enormous prize — one that’s sure to boost the fortunes of the winning locale’s pols and economic-development bureaucrats. It’s hardly surprising that states with high unemployment rates (e.g., New York, Illinois, and New Mexico) were among the suitors.

Yet however popular it is with press-release profiteers, liberalconservative, and libertarian researchers have long considered “economic development” — in a less eco-aware era, it was commonly referred to as “smokestack chasing” — to be poor public policy. The full cost of loan guarantees, tax breaks, and infrastructure assistance are often overlooked, as is the frequency of unethical/illegal cronyism. Embarrassments from the subsidization of trendy-if-unviable industries and businesses are all too easy to name.

The quest to secure USSPACECOM HQ, though, opens a new front in an old battle. “There is no precedent for a presidential administration stoking the ‘economic war among the states,’” Good Jobs First’s Greg LeRoy told KIVA. “Historically the federal government has been laissez-faire.”

And the lack of transparency that has plagued economic-development efforts since their earliest days has manifested itself in D.C.’s first major foray into the field. Averring that the “records are exempt” under the Land of Enchantment’s Uniform Trade Secrets Act and Inspection of Public Records Act, Albuquerque quickly refused to provide its application document(s). (See below.)

The Alaska Aerospace Corporation justified its denial by appealing to a higher authority: national security. In addition to containing “significant business confidential and proprietary information,” Anchorage’s submission, the organization’s president claimed, is “considered unclassified pre-decisional documents and subject to withholding from release under the Freedom of Information Act.”

Entities that ignored multiple attempts to obtain their applications included:

• St. Louis, Missouri

• REACH (a “Regional Economic Action Coalition uniting public, private and civic leaders across the Central Coast of California”)

• Palmdale, California

• Wichita, Kansas

• Spokane, Washington

• St. Clair County, Illinois

• Sterling Heights, Michigan

When asked for assistance to determine fact from fiction in the document-denial matter, a DOD spokeswoman refused: “The Department of the Air Force has entered the evaluation phase of the selection process and isn’t releasing any additional information until the candidates are selected.”

Applicants representing nearly half the states tried their luck with USSPACECOM HQ. Now, the contest is down to six. The final decision is expected early in the new year. Perhaps then millions of taxpayers will discover why their local and state governments were so reluctant to reveal the pitches they made to the Pentagon.

Leave a comment

Give a gift subscription