World View has a great week, but Pima County still has to defend economic development deal against Goldwater Institute lawsuit
It was a pretty good week for Tucson-based World View Enterprises, the high-altitude balloon company that is seeking to expand in Pima County—provided conservative politics don't get in the way.
World View announced that it was developing new technology in the commercial end of its business that would allow its balloon to basically function like unmanned drones or satellites, but at a fraction of the price.
And it announced that it had just picked up $15 million in capital funding from venture investment companies.
The funding from new partners is a big win, said World View CEO Jane Poynter, but the real breakthrough is the technology that allows them to launch what they're calling "stratollites:" balloons that can hover over any spot on the planet. They can launch much more quickly than a satellite—within two days in some cases—and are much cheaper than a drone or satellite. That makes them ideal for communications, surveillance, weather research and other projects.
"We can hold these balloons aloft for an extended period of time—we want to have them up there for six months to a year—and we can also have them stay over an area of interest, so that really makes them something like a satellite but instead of whipping over our heads at 17,500 miles an hour, they are moving incredibly slowly and staying over the area that you want them to be in," Poynter said.
World View is already working on commercial flights with clients such as NASA and expects to extend that reach with the new technology.
But the company is dealing with a political complication: The Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute plans to sue Pima County, saying that the county violated the Arizona Constitution's gift clause by cutting a deal with World View. Manley said elements of the deal violated other areas of state law.
Goldwater Attorney Jim Manley told the Weekly that he believes the deal itself violates the gift clause because it agreed to build a headquarters that World View would lease.
But Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said the county is on solid legal ground because World View is renting the facility and, over 20 years, would pay more than cost of building the headquarters, so there's no gift.
Huckelberry also noted that several other Arizona cities, including Scottsdale, Chandler and Mesa, have offered similar deals in recent years without lawsuits from Goldwater.
Manley said that he hadn't reviewed those examples closely, but added that the organization had decided to sue Pima County because it had complaints from Pima County taxpayers who served as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. He said they had not had similar complaints from Maricopa County jurisdictions.
Huckelberry sees a political motive in the push to undo the World View deal.
"It is clear from viewing Supervisor Ally Miller's Facebook posts regarding World View and the Goldwater Institute, together with her efforts, that the Goldwater Institute has joined foreces with Supervisor Miller in her effort to defeat incumbent county supervisors," Huckelberry wrote in a memo to the board. "The March 28, 2016, Goldwater letter is filled with politically charged rhetoric that has no basis in fact, exaggerates certain points, and omits most facts. It appears designed to influence the outcome of an election."
But Manley denied that Miller, who went into a lengthy rant against World View's management when they appeared before the board earlier this year, had anything to do with the lawsuit.
Local business leaders see value in the county's deal with World View, according to a letter signed by Southern Arizona Leadership Council President and CEO Ron Shoopman, Tucson Metro Chamber President & CEO Mike Varney, Arizona Technology Council President and CEO Steven G. Zylstra, Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Gonzalo de la Melena Jr., Sun Corridor President and CEO Joe Snell and Downtown Tucson Partnership CEO Michael Keith.
"The future of Arizona's economic competitiveness is at stake. We believe that sound public-private partnerships are critical tools in fostering a strong climate for economic growth and new job creation throughout Arizona," they wrote. "A lawsuit stemming from Pima County's project with World View Enterprises, Inc. not only could result in Southern Arizona forfeiting a hard fought economic victory but also unnecessarily would call into question our state's capacity to grow its innovation economy.
"The Goldwater Institute's lawsuit already has negatively impacted Tucson and Southern Arizona," they added. "If the suit proceeds, it will further hurt the city, region and entire state at a time when our economy is showing signs of improvement. Winning World View's nationally competitive site selection process was a major economic feat. By allowing the lawsuit to continue, World View investors will sustain unwarranted uncertainty and future investment will be dampened, which would be catastrophic for Arizona."
Poynter wouldn't comment on the lawsuit because it is pending litigation, but she said that critics who say the company is just catering to wealthy tourist class willing to pay $75,000 to ride on a space balloon don't understand the commercial work they are doing.
"There is a lot more to the business than tourism" she said, "We're talking about commercial side of the business, which is a very exciting market. There is a great misunderstanding about the breadth of our business."
But she added that the tourism part of it was viable as well.
"I will also say that folks are poking at the idea that tourism is not wanted here or would not be relevant to Arizona, when, in fact, Arizona is home to some of the best luxury resorts on the planet," Poynter said.