All systems go once again for Michigan’s $2.5M rocket plan

LANSING — State lawmakers have re-launched a controversial $2.5 million grant to subsidize a rocket site somewhere in Michigan.

In an 18-0 vote on Wednesday, the Senate Appropriations Committee cleared a supplemental budget bill that would award $2.5 million in “enhancement grants” — bureaucratic speak for pork — to a nonprofit planning to build a “low-orbit launch site within this state.”

The bill now heads to the full Senate.

It was the second time lawmakers have sought to fund Michigan’s entry into the space race.

Feb. 13, 2019: Whitmer kills $2.5M rocket plan pushed by Snyder

In the final hours of its lame duck session last December, the Legislature approved a $2.5 million grant for a rocket site. That was tucked into a $1.3 billion spending plan that included $115 million in lawmakers’ pet projects. But details of the Michigan Launch Initiative were so scant that Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration refused to fund the project.

“We have no direction here,” Kurt Weiss, a spokesman for the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, told Bridge in February.

The initial proposal did not specify where the launch facility would be built, beyond saying it would be “north of the 45th parallel,” which could include Alpena, Gaylord or another city Up North.

The proposal advanced Wednesday includes no language about the location, but specifies it would go to a nonprofit at least 10 years old and “promotes the aerospace industry” and fits criteria applying to the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturing Association. Gavin Brown, its executive director, previously told Bridge outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Snyder championed the grant last year after meeting with Brown and a potential investor.

The rocket grant was one of five pet projects approved in December that Whitmer’s budget office halted citing drafting errors. Each of those projects — totaling $11 million — resurfaced in the budget bill approved on Wednesday.

That included a dam project in Gladwin County, a roads project in Muskegon Heights and a bridge project in St. Clair County. And the Dearborn Heights Fire Department would get $300,000 for “street and pedestrian structure upgrades.”

Wednesday's spending legislation, Senate Bill 150, would also fund efforts beyond last year’s earmarks. Among them: $2 million for the “Double Up Food Bucks” program, $5 million to prepare for the 2020 U.S. Census and $5 million related to implementing recreational marijuana legalization.   

Speaking to reporters, Senate Appropriations Chairman Jim Stamas, R-Midland, said he worked with the budget office to fix errors in the rocket grant and other earmarks.

Stamas said the rocket site could help Michigan develop its own space industry and bring jobs to communities around it.

“That’s good for our families,” he said. “We work with a lot of projects continuing to make Michigan competitive with other states.”

Weiss told Bridge the budget office "verified that the Senate language technically satisfies legislative intent" from the previous legislative session. 

"As to the content of the bill, we have had and will continue to have productive discussions with the Legislature on the budget as the process continues to move forward," he added in an email.

The grant sought to add Michigan to the list of the states racing to tap into a growing commercial space market that major banks say could be worth $1 trillion to $3 trillion annually in a few decades.

Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-Meridian Township, was among the committee members to unanimously advance the spending bill Wednesday.

“There were some mistakes made, and they’re being fixed here,” he said of the re-written earmarks. “I think the intention was there for the Legislature to do it the first time.”

Earlier this year, Whitmer halted one other lame duck earmark that was not resurrected in Wednesday’s budget bill: A $10 million grant to build water and sewer lines in Salem Township in Washtenaw County, a project that would benefit a company owned by Bobby Schostak, the former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party.

The budget office said the wording of that grant was broad and open to interpretation, and Weiss in February said the Schostak project “probably rose to the top of that list” of questionable grants doled out during lame duck.

The Schostak company wants to develop 800 homes as well as commercial development on the more than 560 acres it acquired in eastern Washtenaw County at a cost of more than $28 million.

Without the utility lines, the land cannot support those plans, and that’s where the Legislature directed funding.

The total cost of bringing water and sewer to the area is at least $30 million; the Legislature awarded another $10 million grant in 2017, also as a last minute add to a huge spending bill.

Stamas told reporters he backed that project and hoped it would eventually be funded, saying it would bring development to the community and add jobs.

Weiss confirmed Wednesday the grant was still under review and "not moving forward at this point."

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Thu, 04/25/2019 - 9:43am

Use that money for roads or PFAS studies/cleanup! Although, I do get a kick out of up north communities trying to reinvent themselves. Young, highly educated engineers and scientists flocking to Alpena or Gaylord...yes, I can see it now.

Todd Priest
Thu, 04/25/2019 - 10:52pm

Yeah because they are all really secretly hiding on the east side of Detroit.

John Chastain
Thu, 04/25/2019 - 9:51am

So in a state that underfunds essential infrastructure repairs & services we can afford millions for (drum roll please) building satellite launching facilities? Is this a joke, no it’s pork in someone’s pocket. Apparently some republican clown has a friend in need of a “grant” to help keep Michigan competitive in the space race. What a laugh & conservative complain about how liberals spend money.

Kathi Geukes
Thu, 04/25/2019 - 10:40am


Sat, 04/27/2019 - 11:02pm

I don't know how you define a 'conservative', but if it is a person that wants value for their taxes before they support a new/renewed tax then I plead guilty. As far as the spending for a rocket launch site [study], I also questions the value in that spending so does that makes me a 'liberal'?
Those that blindly accept taxing and spending or those blindly resisting taxes, and neither ask about value or accountability are the 'true believer' partisans that are preventing problems being solves and improving the performance of State agencies and programs.
Which are you a 'conservative', 'liberal', or simply a 'true believer' that doesn't a political thought of their own?

Jeff Banker
Thu, 04/25/2019 - 7:48pm

I tend to be pro-business but things need to make sense, which this does not.
In a previous article, their lead investor acknowledged that the $2.5M study would probably proceed without state support, so WTH are the legislators doing throwing away taxpayer money?

Todd Priest
Thu, 04/25/2019 - 10:51pm

Well if Granholm II doesn't like it, it must be okay.

Al Churchill
Sun, 04/28/2019 - 3:19pm

It isn't just the last few years when curriculum standards have been accused of being biased. Many, many, many years ago this writer sat on a high school social science curriculum committee established by the Michigan Department of Education. I asked to sit on that committee because the instructions given to the committee by the Board of Education looked like they were wrtten by and for the Chamber of Commerce. I stated so at a committee meeting. After the meeting, I was told that the academics that put the standards together, said the same thing.
By the way, a lady from the Chamber of Commerce sat only three or four chairs from me.
Donald Trump Jr. recently said that American education is a matter of indoctrination. He,
and the wingers that agree with him are right. John Dewey, one of the most prominent educational theorists of the 20th Century posited that American schools are responsible for producing productive, responsible citizens in a democratic society. The emphasis was on democracy. That is, pretty much, what they have done.
Let the academics, those who have dedicated their lives to studying the American experience, be the final arbiter.

Al Churchill
Sun, 04/28/2019 - 4:03pm

The state of Michigan is not the only one interested in space. Donald Trump has recently mentioned returning to the moon and space issues generally.
But let me digress.
As part of an artillery battalion, facing off against the Russians in the middle of the Cold War, I spent two years in Germany. During that period, the Russians put Sputnik into orbit, starting a space race. Nobody was prouder than this writer when, then President John Kennedy, put American credibility and can-do on the line, finally putting astronauts on the moon and embarrassing the Russians.
Since then gazillions of dollars have been spent on space projects,and I don't see how doing so has benefited my family. There has been limited military applications, spy satellites, etc. that justify themselves, but, beyond the original landing on the moon and the real problems that we have in this country that are crying out for solutions that require, among other things, money, I can't condone spending a penny of public money until a better cost-benefit picture appears.
It is true that Michigan needs a more diverse economic base, but surely there are better options than the current one.
I'm sorry, I just don't see my middle class family being on the manifest of a space ship on its way to another planet after we make earth unlivable.

Mon, 05/06/2019 - 11:29am

News flash for all you knuckle heads out there. The reason rocket launch sites are located in WARM areas is for year round use. People seem to forget the Challenger incident. The weather in the UP would at best be a window of four months utilization. completed, pay me 2.5 million dollars!

Thu, 05/30/2019 - 4:14pm

Building a launch pad north of 45, fails to recognize the physics of launching objects into space. There is a reason why most launch pads are near the equator.

Gary Lea
Thu, 06/13/2019 - 9:34am

All that I could imagine has to do with air-launched rockets, as Stratolaunch Systems is planning. Michigan Technological University in our upper peninsula can supply talent, while all of our roadways will need improving to support increased tourism.