Hilo space research facility advances


By TOM CALLIS

Tribune-Herald staff writer

Hilo remains on track to becoming the launching pad for a new scientific research facility focused on colonizing space.

But it won’t be done with tax breaks.

The state House and Senate on Thursday, the final day of this year’s legislative session, will take a final vote on House Bill 2873, which would fund the start of a research park headed by the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems.

The facility, likely to be located at the W.H. Shipman Industrial Park, would be home to international space agencies, private companies and anyone interested in spearheading new ways to make life on the moon and beyond possible.

The Legislature this session also considered another bill to create a similar research park near downtown Hilo where companies would receive breaks or exemptions on state taxes.

That legislation, House Bill 2872, had passed both chambers but died in a conference committee on Friday.

State Rep. Angus McKelvey of Maui, who introduced both bills, said it was a casualty of disagreements between House and Senate leaders over tax breaks.

“The Senate couldn’t get these really large credits they were seeking,” he said. “So no credits at all became one of the ground rules.”

The final version of HB 2873 received the support on Monday from leaders of both chambers who passed it out of a conference committee. The House and Senate have already passed earlier versions of the bill, making its final approval on Thursday likely.

PISCES administrators expressed disappointment Monday in the decision to eliminate the financial incentives.

But they also didn’t consider it a deal breaker for attracting partners to the Big Island, which they consider ideal for planning future settlements on the moon.

“If you build it, they will come,” said John Hamilton, PISCES deputy director.

The bill would allocate $1.9 million in general obligation bonds for capital improvements and $500,000 for a year’s worth of operating costs.

It would also transfer PISCES, a five-year-old program at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, to under the management of the state Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism.

That will not result in PISCES severing ties with the university, Hamilton said, though the move will give it more flexibility to work with the private sector.

“We’re on the edge of a new era in space,” he said. “It’s not government-driven-tax-dollars type stuff.

“It’s commercially developed.”

Hamilton said the research park is expected to become self-sustaining after five years, with funds from private and other governmental partners covering the costs.

Until then, other state allocations for operating costs may be made, McKelvey said.

Christian Andersen, PISCES operations manager, said a lease hasn’t been signed, but the owners of Shipman Industrial Park, located outside Hilo on Highway 11, are interested.

Andersen said that PISCES’ presence would be limited to about a dozen employees, though some concepts for the facility place its build-out at about 50 acres.

“In terms of how big the overall project will be, that will depend on the number of people who come in,” he said.

So far, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, along with space agencies in Canada and Germany, as well as some private aerospace companies, have shown interest in becoming partners, Andersen and Hamilton said.

No formal commitments have been made.

McKelvey, who represents District 10 on Maui, said he got behind the proposal after hearing it discussed at an aerospace conference on the Big Island last year.

“This is a big opportunity just waiting for it,” he said.

McKelvey said all of Hilo would benefit.

“It will trigger an avalanche of private investment,” he said.

“It’s going to re-energize the whole town.”

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.