On the cusp of history: a small Texas city adapts to life with Elon Musk and SpaceX

SpaceX has helped to revitalise a downtrodden part of southern Texas - but at what cost?

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On a hot, sticky morning, Bobby Lerma wades through dusty, ankle-length grass to reach the pink stucco mausoleum that sits on his family ranch outside of Brownsville, Texas.

“That’s my dad up there,” says Mr Lerma, pointing to a white marble engraving on the wall. “Then we have my mom, who is over here on top, and that’s her brother, and then my late wife is over there, so we’re full.”

Well, not quite. The 64-year-old retired municipal judge and lawyer says he intends to be buried next to his kin on the property his mother’s family has owned since the start of the American Civil war in 1861.

Quiet south Texas town adapts to life with Elon Musk and SpaceX

The only concern is that, 11 kilometres from Mr Lerma's sprawling 485-hectare ranch, the world’s richest man, Elon Musk, has built a Jetson-like space facility called Starbase, which has transformed the tranquil area into a bustling hive of rocket scientists and engineers.

They are working on building the largest rocket ever created, the 120-metre-tall Starship, a reusable craft that Mr Musk hopes will one day be able to carry equipment and people on missions to the Moon and Mars.

Starbase rises above a pristine wildlife refuge and abuts one of southern Texas’s last remaining public beaches.

Driving along Texas State Highway 4, the shimmering futuristic rockets loom over an expanse of relatively untouched land, appearing like an alien aberration.

Beneath them in the surrounding wildlife refuge, hundreds of birds and insects buzz through the air only a few kilometres from where the Rio Grande meets the Gulf of Mexico.

When SpaceX launches its powerful rockets, the company has to close down Highway 4 - the only road leading to Mr Lerma's property and Boca Chica Beach.

“We have trouble getting home, because every time they want to do something, the road gets closed and the beach gets closed,” Mr Lerma told The National.

Under Texas state law, public beach access is a constitutional right. But in 2013, the state's legislature amended the law to allow for closures during SpaceX flight operations.

A 2014 agreement between SpaceX and the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) stated that the company must limit road closures to 180 hours per year, spread out over 12 launches.

But many residents complain that SpaceX has far exceeded that original agreement.

Beyond the nuisance of road closures, there are environmental concerns as well.

“Just from that land being developed, we've already seen harsh declines in different bird populations," said Emma Guevara, an organiser with the Sierra Club in Brownsville, who blames the deaths of ocelots, a type of wild cat that only lives in two parts of Texas, on SpaceX's activities.

Along with other environmental groups, the Sierra Club has filed a lawsuit against the Texas General Land Office and Cameron County, where Brownsville and Boca Chica are located, over road closures and restricted access to the beach.

A recent environmental assessment report conducted by the FAA found that SpaceX had to make 75 adjustments to mitigate its environmental impact to move forward with the Starship programme.

In addition, the assessment called for the company to limit weekend road closures to five per year and said SpaceX should not restrict beach access during 18 federal and state holidays.

SpaceX did not respond to repeated requests for comment. So far, their only public comment on the FAA report has come in the form of a tweet.

“One step closer to the first orbital flight test of Starship,” the company said.

Why Boca Chica?

Boca Chica sits in the southernmost corner of Texas near the gulf of the Rio Grande, a few kilometres east of the city of Brownsville and the US-Mexico border.

The very remoteness that makes it attractive to local residents and visitors alike made it an ideal location for the SpaceX launch site.

“It’s always possible that something goes wrong and so you want to have a good clear area,” said Mr Musk at a SpaceX event in February 2022. “You want several miles around the launch site unpopulated or at least clearable.”

It is also the farthest southern point in the continental US outside of Florida, which means it's close to the equator, making it easier for rockets to reach orbit.

Texas also offered a hospitable business environment for the billionaire entrepreneur to build and base one of the world’s largest private space companies.

In 2014, Rick Perry, then governor of Texas, offered more than $15 million in incentives for Mr Musk to set up shop in Boca Chica.

"SpaceX is excited to expand our work in Texas with the world's first commercial launch complex designed specifically for orbital missions," Mr Musk said in a statement at the time.

In the years since, Mr Musk has found an agreeable partner in the state, choosing not only to move SpaceX there, but his electric car company Tesla as well.

“I think Texas has the right amount of rules and regulations,” Mr Musk joked to an audience back in February.

Mr Musk has even made Boca Chica his home base, reportedly living in a bungalow worth only $50,000.

Since SpaceX first arrived in Boca Chica in 2014, the company has been buying up land at a ravenous pace in hopes of creating its own Starbase city.

It is easy to spot the differences between Starbase employees' homes and those that belong to locals unwilling to sell. The first clue is often the Tesla parked in the driveway.

A city on the rise

About 1,600 people work at SpaceX in Boca Chica, which has helped to vastly improve the area's economy.

Brownsville, the nearby city of 188,000, has long been considered one of America’s most impoverished.

The 2020 US Census revealed that the city had a median household income of $40,924, compared to a median income of $67,521 across the US. More than one quarter of the city's residents live in poverty.

The frontier city, which borders Matamoros, Mexico, is most often associated with immigration issues along the southern US border, but that narrative has started to change with the arrival of SpaceX.

The city has an abundance of 19th century historical buildings in various states of disrepair. The years of economic downturn are evident in the hardscrabble streets and dilapidated facades.

But a revitalisation project partially funded by Mr Musk has helped to restore a stretch of the Brownsville city centre to its former glory.

Hip restaurants and bars line several blocks and offer upscale cuisine to the city’s newest residents and SpaceX employees.

At Terra's, a popular new eatery on Washington Street, diners chow down on $18 tacos in a cavernous, exposed-brick dining hall. It is a scene straight out of New York City or Austin, Texas, a city often considered one of America’s hippest.

“[SpaceX] has put us on the map in terms of our potential and it provides just a lot of hope and aspiration,'' said John Cowen, a Brownsville city commissioner. “We're at the centre of innovation now.”

But SpaceX has also sent Brownsville’s house prices soaring.

The median house price as of April 2022 was $239,000. That’s almost $100,000 more than it was in April of 2019, website Realtor.com reported.

Mr Lerma said SpaceX approached him to see if he would be open to selling his property. He immediately declined.

"It's not for sale. No, it means too much to the family," he said.

Driving through a new subdivision on the outskirts of Brownsville, Craig Grove, a local real estate agent, pointed out homes he had recently sold.

“I sold that one right there last year for $329,000,” he said, pointing to a large home with a two-car garage.

Mr Grove, who considers himself the city’s biggest cheerleader, believes SpaceX has offered a much-needed injection of capital and hope into Brownsville.

“There's definitely been a bump - it's something that we never thought we would see, these people coming from California, Seattle, Denver, some parts of the East Coast coming to work at SpaceX, and these high-tech jobs, you know, specialty welding, computer programming, robotics, all these kinds of things,” he said.

Mr Grove even created a subsidiary of his main business to cater specifically to SpaceX employees called Starbase Realty.

He said SpaceX employees tend to buy three- to four-bedroom homes in newer developments that sell for between $200,000 and $300,000.

Those prices are a far cry from what they would pay in Los Angeles or Seattle, he explained.

“It's historically way more affordable,” he told The National. “And when you're looking at it from the perspective of Los Angeles, or these other big metros to Brownsville, it's crazy.”

The influx of new wealthier residents in a city that has a large population that lives on the margins of poverty has upset some locals.

“We’re seeing overcrowding in the city,” said Ms Guevara, the Sierra Club organiser.

“We're having a real housing crisis; it's really really difficult to find affordable housing or even to find housing in general.”

While Mr Musk has brought in a great deal of money, excitement and business to Brownsville - winning him the support of many local politicians - the same cannot be said of the whole community.

On a hot June night, a middle-aged man wearing a white sleeveless T-shirt, walks by a large mural of Mr Musk that adorns a building in Brownsville and raised his middle finger at the billionaire.

But Mr Cowen, the city commissioner, was adamant that the city was in a much better place now that Mr Musk is a nearby resident.

“Elon provides a better future for everyone," he said.

Mr Lerma was less diplomatic about Mr Musk's presence in the area, criticising local politicians for “worshipping the altar of King Elon".

While he admitted there could be benefits to having Starbase as part of the community, he worried about its influence going unchecked.

“I'm not in the way of progress - progress is here,” he said.

“Maybe one of my kids might get a job at SpaceX. But will my kid not be able to go to the beach one day?”

Updated: June 29, 2022, 12:59 PM
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