BROWNSVILLE, Texas – Brownsville-South Padre Island International Airport is working to get spaceport licensing designation from the Federal Aviation Administration’s office of commercial space.

Such a designation would not be a competitive move against SpaceX but rather a complimentary one, says Francisco Partida, special projects manager for the airport.

“Another of the initiatives that is being supported by the City of Brownsville and the Greater Brownsville Incentives Corporation (GBIC) is spaceport licensing designation for the Brownsville-South Padre Island International Airport,” Partida said, in a presentation to potential foreign investors. 

“Last year, GBIC and the board approved about a $500,000 investment to pursue spaceport designation. Not to compete with our partners at SpaceX but to compliment their operation. To attract high profile aerospace and new space industry to Brownsville. To make this community even more successful than it is.”

Partida (pictured above) made his presentation at a conference. titled “The Future of Aerospace, Defense & Energy.” Held at the Brownsville Events Center, the event was hosted by GBIC and SelectUSA. Select USA is a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

In a Q&A after his presentation, Partida gave more details about the spaceport license application.

“This is an opportunity that we are pursuing with the Federal Aviation Administration office of commercial space. Two years ago we embarked on a feasibility study with aviation consultants and it returned a result of feasible with, not vertical but horizontal launch and recovery capabilities.”

Partida then listed some of the companies that specialize in horizontal spacecraft launches.

“The vertical, obviously, is the Blue Angel, SpaceX, NASA, etc. The horizontal is Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit, Sierra Nevada, Space Perspectives, and other companies that are up and coming. That is what I mean when I say, we do not compete with our partners at SpaceX, we compliment their operations.”

Partida continued: “We want to open that gate for more space operators to come and set foot in Brownsville. The whole process takes about 18 months. Right now the FAA is on pause, obviously, because SpaceX’s environmental (assessment) was taking a lot of the resources. But, we are very hopeful that in the next six to eight months we can gain more ground in that designation.”

In his presentation, Partida pointed out that SpaceX has a presence at BRO, as Brownsville-South Padre Island International Airport, is identified as in the industry. 

“Like Mayor Mendez mentioned, we are proud to be home of SpaceX within the city limits. Last year they signed a lease for 60,000 square foot of airport-owned warehouse in assistance with the Greater Brownsville Incentives Corporation and then they later expanded to another 60,000 with an industrial partner. And they are looking for more so we hope that it is a long-standing relationship,” Partida said.

Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez had spoken before Partida, welcoming potentially foreign investors to the conference.

Partida began his presentation with a question, Why Brownsville? His answer was “Location, location, location.” He pointed out that BRO is close to maquiladoras in Brownsville and Matamoros and just four miles from the Port of Brownsville.

Partida said BRO has direct flights year round to Dallas via American Airlines and Houston via United Airlines. “These Texas hubs connect to 650 destinations. So, we are connected to the world,” he explained.

BRO is “actively chasing more opportunities,” Partida said with talks underway with domestic and international carriers. 

“The Brownsville-Harlingen MSA generates 1,200 passengers per day. Of those 1,200 passengers, 731 reside in a zip code that is closer to Brownsville. This is the center of population. This is where people live and want to come. That is one strong case to make with the airlines to expand their service and better serve our business community, our leisure community and visitors alike,” Partida said. 

Giving an update on BRO’s airport campus, Partida said it now offers a new passenger terminal, general aviation, an aerospace industrial park, and an air cargo logistics zone. “And (we have) the foreign trade zone, with about 300 acres designated as a foreign trade zone, (which is) very attractive for the manufacturing industry.”

Focusing on the new passenger terminal, Partida said BRO used to have a “vintage” terminal covering 37,000 square feet. It was built in 1971. He said there were only two gates and had a hold room about half the size of banquet room he was speaking in.

“So, it was very hard to provide customer service in a good quality product (environment) to our passengers and business travelers,” Partida said. “In partnership with the Federal Aviation Administration, the City of Brownsville, Greater Brownsville Incentives Corporation, and the Brownsville Community Improvement Corporation, we have brought this beautiful $75 million terminal from zero to 100 percent. We opened this 91,000 square foot, state of the art, four gate terminal on January 20, 2021.”

Partida said he wanted to talk about opportunities, just like Mayor Mendez had in his remarks.

“Like Mayor Mendez mentioned, why Brownsville? Land. Plenty of acreage available for development.” He said the Aerospace Industrial Park features Fisher Dynamics and Trico. “There is plenty of opportunity to develop, whether it is a private hangar, an aerospace cluster, research and development, we are open for business. There is a lot of opportunity to come and take.”

BRO’s industrial park has more than 100 acres of greenfield that is ripe for development, Partida explained. “It is home to multinational manufacturing firms, has quick access to the interstate system, quick access to the three international bridges here in Brownsville, and, obviously, quick access to the Port of Brownsville.”

Indeed, BRO could become a truly multi-modal airport, Partida said. “We just need that rail spur to connect to the port and we would be set.”

Answering a question from the audience, Partida said BRO is fortunate to have a “very loyal” customer base. He said 2021’s passenger numbers were only just below those of pre-pandemic 2019. 

“We are recapturing our customers. People that should be traveling out of Brownsville are no longer driving 40 minutes up the interstate, 60 minutes west on the interstate, they are staying in Brownsville and using Brownsville and we are very grateful for that,” Partida said.

“We are going to continue pursuing more opportunities to give our customers direct access to the areas that they want to go, like the Northeast and even the Midwest.”

Editor’s Note: The above news story is the third in a series of features focusing on a recent Greater Brownsville Incentives Corporation/SelectUSA conference titled “The Future of Aerospace, Defense & Energy in Brownsville.” Click here to read Part One. Click here to read Part Two. Part Four will be published in our next edition. 

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