Grant program could bring aerospace training centers to Alpine, Van Horn

WEST TEXAS — A coalition of El Paso entities is vying for a federal grant program to support an aerospace and defense project for the region — which could bring training centers to Van Horn and to Alpine’s Sul Ross State University with the goal of training locals to take on jobs in the growing industry.

El Paso Makes, a partnership that includes the El Paso Chamber and The University of Texas at El Paso W.M Keck Center for 3D Innovation and Aerospace Center, helps comprise a new coalition called the West Texas Aerospace and Defense Manufacturing Coalition – a coalition whose proposed project was named in December as a finalist in the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s $1 billion “Build Back Better Regional Challenge.” 

The project, titled “Reclaiming Aerospace and Defense Manufacturing Dominance through Frontier Technologies,” puts forth a plan to reinvigorate economic growth and job opportunities, not only in El Paso but throughout West Texas. A project summary available through the EDA says the grant would “jumpstart our efforts to tackle the enduring challenges in our region of lagging incomes, brain drain and the hollowing out of a once vibrant manufacturing base.” 

The project identifies low wages and a dearth of STEM occupations as problems plaguing the region, and notes economic setbacks have been worsened by the pandemic; it also identifies the booming aerospace and defense industry as a potential source of growth. West Texas is not only a manufacturing hub and close to a number of military bases, the coalition says, but is also home to the spaceport of Blue Origin, the aerospace company founded by billionaire Jeff Bezos. In July of last year, the company’s first manned flight took place at the launch site in Culberson County, just outside of Van Horn.

In addition to a proposed 250-acre site near the El Paso International Airport that would house manufacturers, design centers and a training center, the project pitches a plan for supporting facilities in surrounding rural areas, which includes “Satellite Centers for Aerospace and Defense Supply Chain Innovation Network for Manufacturers,” which will host training centers, both in Van Horn and at Sul Ross State University in Alpine.

“Blue Origin’s spaceport investment in Culberson County should be matched with public investment that provides area residents a pathway to jobs at Blue Origin and provides area manufacturers new business opportunities,” reads the project summary.

Those involved in the project have also been seeking the support of surrounding communities, beyond Alpine and Van Horn — including Marfa. The Rio Grande Council of Governments (RioCOG), the association of local governments which includes Presidio, Brewster and Jeff Davis counties, has helped facilitate community outreach during the application process, said RioCOG Executive Director Annette Gutierrez. 

RioCOG brought the project, along with a request for a show of support, to Marfa City Council, which on Tuesday night passed a motion signaling support for the project — the city had been asked to show their commitment via a concrete offer of some kind, whether through an offering of physical space, employees’ time or promotion via social media. Council members discussed the possibility of offering space in the Marfa Activities Center (MAC) building or at the landfill, and of offering promotion efforts. Ultimately, a motion was passed authorizing City Manager Mandy Roane to continue conversations with RioCOG and to offer those amenities as they see fit.

The phase 2 applications are due on March 15. The grants will be awarded in September, according to Gutierrez, who estimated that the facilities could be up and running by the last quarter of fiscal year 2023.