(Nov. 14, 2014) NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility became a popular topic on the campaign trail, often cited by many as a major potential jobs engine in Worcester County.
Despite the catastrophic Orbital Sciences Antares rocket failure on Oct. 28, officials in the county believe the future is bright and the potential economic impact on the county is sky-high.
Salisbury University professor Dr. Memo Diriker conducted an economic impact study into the Wallops effect on the Eastern Shore two years ago, showing that more than $200 million in revenue coming to Worcester, Wicomico and Somerset counties.
“That was fairly equally split 45-45 between Worcester and Wicomico and about 10 percent to Somerset,” Diriker said. “That level of economic activity supported over 1,000 jobs in those areas, and by the time you add the entire economic impact of the facility it’s over $400 million and over 3,000 jobs.”
Diriker said the potential impact is even greater.
“I think the sky is the limit, literally, because of the testing license that they have for the unmanned aerial systems,” he said. “If unmanned aerial systems are going to be developed commercially wouldn’t you want that industry to be developed near where the testing is done? There are very few testing facilities as big as Wallops. It’s going to be potentially very attractive to existing businesses that have a presence down here as well new businesses and innovative companies planning to come here.”
Although some believe the Wallops effect on Worcester County is limited to the southern regions in Snow Hill and Pocomoke, Worcester County Economic Development Deputy Director Meredith M. Mears said Ocean City, Berlin and Ocean Pines also stand to benefit.
“There is absolutely a tangible impact on the majority of the county,” Mears said. “With all the launches that have happened and will be happening once they get things straightened up down there, there’s an incredible opportunity for a tourism impact. That means folks who want to see rocket launches can stay in Ocean City, or for folks that come from other areas and set up their businesses perhaps in Pocomoke or Snow Hill but want to live at the beach, home sales would see an impact.”
The owner of Hardwire Armor Systems in Pocomoke, for example, lives in Ocean City and commutes every day.
“The whole county feels the impact in my perspective,” Mears said.
Diriker said Wicomico County has already developed a plan to use future developments in NASA’s aerospace sector to attract and increase business.
“After that the value of space-related tourism – people coming to see the launches, people visiting the museum at the gate, people coming for pre-arranged bus tours and summer camps, maybe even in the future zero-gravity flights – all of that creates an additional economic engine all because Wallops is there,” he said. “As long as it continues as a NASA and Navy facility, it will not only continue to be an economic engine for us, but it will keep growing. I’m very, very bullish about Wallops.”
Mears said she has similar plans to promote future tech and that the county is currently using business incubators in Pocomoke to allow business to “grow and feed off of each other.”
“Any kind of company can go in there, and we have had interest from businesses even on the other side of the bridge that work for aerospace or engineering companies that want to set up shop in our incubator and serve Wallops,” she said. “We see that as a great possibility for the county.”
NASA officials are moving forward despite Antares rocket setback. Diriker expressed similar confidence that the incident would ultimately be minor.
“It’s going to delay some launches, but it also allows [Orbital] to come back bigger, better and stronger,” he said. “Orbital has already announced their intention to come back at full force and there’s even going to be economic activity as we are repairing the launch facility.”
Mears said the rocket “landed in just the right way to cause minimal impact.”
“Of course there’s going to be some cleanup involved, but there’s not expected to be any long-term hold off of rocket launches,” she said. “For what we’ve been told, the damage is really minimal.”