Thirteen months ago when Steve Franck and his associates with Pale Blue Dot Ventures publicly revealed their plans to build a sprawling space-themed complex in the heart of the Lompoc Valley, they figured by this point they’d be nearing or even surpassing early milestones.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened.
With stay-at-home orders and economic uncertainty negatively affecting the project backers’ ability to fundraise, the Lompoc City Council on Tuesday night granted a request from Pale Blue Dot Ventures to push back some significant deadlines.
Under the terms of the original memorandum of understanding that was agreed upon in July 2019 between Pale Blue Dot Ventures and the city, the team at Pale Blue Dot was required to provide proof of at least $750,000 in seed money, with at least $500,000 of that in cash, as well as early design documents by mid-July 2020. On Tuesday, the City Council unanimously supported extending that deadline by 120 days, effectively pushing it to mid-November.
Despite what would appear to be a setback, Franck expressed confidence Thursday that the project will remain on track.
“Progress was good before the pandemic, and we were building significant local investors and support,” said Franck, who has been involved with the project for five years. “The intervening pandemic has forced everyone to take a significant pause.”
The project plans, which were first revealed in March 2019, are expansive.
Pale Blue Dot leaders are hoping to acquire about 82 acres of city-owned property surrounding and including Ken Adam Park near Hancock College’s Lompoc Valley campus to develop their bold vision. Among the amenities proposed for the multipurpose complex is a space center and related visitor’s center, an amphitheater and theater that can be used to watch launches from nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base, as well as a hotel, restaurants and retail shops.
The property is also slated to include several educational aspects, with a focus on promoting STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) learning.
Franck believes the ongoing coronavirus crisis is evidence of why the project is so needed.
“In our view, [the pandemic] has exposed the United States' need to rededicate ourselves to STEAM education, as we are increasingly falling behind our global competitors,” he said, citing figures that suggest China produces more than eight times the number of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) graduates as the U.S. “This is clearly not a sustainable trajectory.”
The pandemic’s biggest impact on the project thus far, according to Franck, is that it has prevented Pale Blue Dot leaders from meeting with potential investors.
Additionally, the letter that Franck submitted to the Lompoc City Council and City Manager Jim Throop to request the deadline extensions noted that many potential investors “have likely suffered significant financial losses, perhaps as much as 30-40% or more” during this coronavirus outbreak.
So far, Franck said, Pale Blue Dot Ventures has secured about $300,000 for the project, though he said principal investors had contributed more over the past five years to get to this point. He said that some fundraising work has continued amid the pandemic, and estimated that about $1.4 million has already been spent to reach the current stage.
Some of that money, he said, reflects capital spent on prior iterations of the project over the past five years, though he noted that past backers of the project have no continuing ownership of Pale Blue Dot's project plans.
"Although the pandemic has reduced our mobility ... we hope to move forward soon after the travel restrictions are lifted," Franck said.
A report prepared by Lompoc city staff noted that the extended timelines would not have a negative fiscal impact for the city. Any legal costs related to altering the memorandum of understanding, according to staff, would be taken from a $25,000 deposit that Pale Blue Dot submitted to the city last year.
Even with the pandemic, Franck said he still anticipates that the complex could open as soon as mid-2024 — the same year that NASA plans to return American astronauts to the moon.
“We want to tell this epochal story,” Franck said, referring to exploration of the moon, Mars and worlds beyond.
“And we hope to tell this story from Lompoc.”
Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.
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