Traverse City News and Events

Pugsley Is Our Entry Into Michigan's Space Race

By Craig Manning | Oct. 28, 2020

The former site of Pugsley Correctional Facility in Kingsley is one step closer to becoming the command and control center for satellite launches in the state of Michigan.

Grand Traverse Economic Development (GTED), the commercial investment entity of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, acquired the Pugsley site this past spring and rebranded it as the Grand Traverse Science and Technology Center (STIC). As part of the rebrand, GTED submitted an application in February to the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association (MAMA) to have STIC considered as a command and control center for the organization’s Michigan Launch Initiative. Speaking at the 2020 North America Space Symposium, held August 30 to September 2 at Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, MAMA Executive Director Gavin Brown announced that STIC had been selected as one of the six finalists in the selection process.

MAMA has previously announced two sites in Michigan as likely locations for new spaceports: one at Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport and a second just north of Marquette. Those facilities would be used to launch small and mid-sized satellites, most of them into low-earth orbit (LEO). Lauren Tucker, director of business development and sales for GTED, says that, if chosen as MAMA’s command and control center, STIC would essentially serve the role for these launch sites that Houston does for NASA spaceports, working with both commercial and governmental entities to facilitate launches and monitor aircraft.

GTED submitted its application for Phase II of MAMA’s command and control center selection process last week; MAMA is expected to announce its final choice by the end of November. While STIC is up against some stiff competition – in particular, Tucker points to the Battle Creek Air National Guard Base as GTED’s “greatest competitor” – the facility’s history as a correctional facility, its status as a privately-owned entity, and its location are all factors that Tucker says should improve its chances.

“We are in a good position because STIC has the security of a federal military base, but it's a commercially owned and operated property,” Tucker explains. “So it’s ideally suited to be a dual space facility – one that would be working with the Department of Defense, working with Space Force, but also working with commercial entities. The selection criteria is also primarily about the community: the support the community has for the project, the housing market, the job market, the education, the workforce development, the retirement statistics. [MAMA] uses the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) index ranking as a measure in quality of life, because it's one of the only true measurable indexes that speaks to that. They have a minimum requirement [index score] of 50; Traverse City is a 57 and Kingsley is a 53.”

As for project support, GTED has been working to establish alliances with local organizations – such as Traverse Connect and Traverse City Tourism – as well as with elected officials like Congressman Jack Bergman and Senator Gary Peters, to build advocacy and momentum for STIC’s candidacy. Warren Call, president and CEO of Traverse Connect, sees STIC as a major asset for northern Michigan’s future economic development.

“We are very excited about this project and have been voicing our support in a number of forums with MAMA and a recent meeting with Senator Peters,” Call tells The Ticker. “The STIC will bring good, family sustaining jobs to our region, as well as innovation and entrepreneurship, educational expansion, and advanced technical training opportunities. The selection of the former Pugsley site for both the STIC and the command and control center is an opportunity to build out an industry that will serve as a cornerstone for our community.”

Creating a space launch infrastructure in Michigan, Tucker says, should help drive NASA to bring more business to the state. NASA recorded $37.45 million in contracts with Michigan businesses and organizations during the 2019 fiscal year. Out of all 50 states, that puts Michigan in 21st place for NASA contracts. Six states – California, Maryland, Alabama, Colorado, Texas, and Florida – pulled in more than $1 billion each in NASA contracts during fiscal year 2019. Tucker’s goal is to “garner a big chunk” of NASA’s spending and move Michigan up the list, potentially bringing hundreds of millions – or even billions – of dollars in economic activity to the Mitten.

If STIC is chosen as the control center site for the Michigan Launch Initiative, it will still be years before the facility would be operational as such. MAMA is aiming to take the launch site in Oscoda live by August of 2023, followed by the Marquette area launch site sometime in 2024. Both sites, plus the chosen command and control center, will have to go through a licensing process with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), plus a significant design and build process.

Even if MAMA doesn’t choose STIC, though, GTED still has big visions for the site as a STEM and manufacturing business park. The first tenant on the property will be GTED’s own Bay Shore Steel Works, which is currently in the process of renovating Pugsley’s old gymnasium into a new machine shop. Traverse City’s ATLAS Space Operations is also signed on to bring some business operations to the site. Other goals include hooking STIC up to a nearby rail spur, to open up opportunities for manufacturing and logistics; and partnering with educational institutions like NMC, MTech, and the Traverse City Area Intermediate School District Career-Tech Center, to offer skilled trades training at STIC.

Ultimately, Tucker expects that operations at STIC will create “hundreds of jobs,” with or without the MAMA partnership.

“It’s a blank canvas right now,” she says. “I kind of close my eyes and envision something like a Google campus – just with razor wire.”

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