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Md. lawmakers see dollars in Wallops Flight Facility

'What we want to do is get into direct competition with Cape Canaveral,'

ANNAPOLIS — State legislators from the Eastern Shore are looking to the sky as a way to improve the economy.

A resolution sponsored by Sen. James N. Mathias Jr, and an identical resolution in the House of Delegates, calls on the NASA and the federal government to undertake an environmental impact study that they hope with be the first step to using the Wallops Flight Facility to launch, land and reuse booster rockets from commercial space travel.

“What we want to do is get into direct competition with Cape Canaveral,” said Mathias, D-Eastern Shore.

The U.S. Air Force has already conducted a similar environmental impact study in Florida related to the landing of booster rockets at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

“They’re already on the go. They’ve already completed this environmental impact statement and we’d be No. 2 to the table and start to negotiate these contracts,” Mathias said.

Expansion of the private use of the rocket range could bring additional jobs to Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester Counties.

All three counties exceed the state’s 5.5 percent unemployment rate.

Worcester County, with 16.1 percent unemployment, and Somerset County with 10.9 percent unemployment are first and second highest, respectively, in terms of unemployment rate. Wicomico County is tied for fourth worst in the state with an 8.8 percent unemployment rate.

Additionally, Mathias said, the region will lose 650 jobs over the next 18 months related to the closing of a Salisbury plant that supplies parts for military aircraft including the Chinook helicopter.

“Each job, one job, every job is important,” Mathias said.

The effort has the support of local elected and economic development officials as well as Rep. Steny H. Hoyer.

The resolution introduced in both the House of Delegates and the Senate is similar to one under consideration in Virginia, which is home to the NASA-owned facility.

Located in Virginia just five miles from the Maryland border, the 60-year-old site is the oldest continuously operating rocket range in the country, where an estimated 16,000 flights have been launched including flights to service and supply the International Space Station.

Despite being in another state, the site has a significant impact already on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

The island accounts for more than 2,300 jobs and an economic impact on the Eastern Shore of nearly $190 million, according to a February 2014 study paid for by the Maryland Department of Economic Development.

“There are rocket scientists walking the streets of Somerset County,” said Del. Charles J. Otto, R-Somerset County.

That same study estimates that as much as 50 percent of the workers at the facility are residents of Maryland.

In addition to a potential growth in the number of jobs related to commercial space activity, the report also found that tourism activity centered around launches would also likely increase. The study suggested that additional private facilities might be needed in close proximity to the main NASA rocket range.