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Faced with drought, a wine region in central California looks to develop a spaceport


The drought in the West and climate change have smaller cities rethinking their economies, especially if their main business is agriculture. On California's Central Coast, one town is trying to diversify beyond its main moneymaker - grapes and wine. From member station KCBX, Benjamin Purper reports that business leaders are looking from the ground to the sky.


BENJAMIN PURPER, BYLINE: In a rural part of Paso Robles, there's a hilly vineyard called Tablas Creek. It was one of the first wineries in the area.

JASON HAAS: We're convinced that the future is likely to be drier than the past here.

PURPER: Manager Jason Haas shows vines his father planted here decades ago. But since then, drought and climate change have crept in.

HAAS: There's more pressure on shared resources like groundwater than there's ever been.

PURPER: Water scarcity, high temperatures and wildfires are all threats to wineries like this one. Haas says that's changed his calculations and planning for the future.

HAAS: Now you're trying to project forwards. When you plant a grapevine, you hope it lives a hundred years.

PURPER: The environment for Paso Robles' grapes may not be sustainable in the long term, and that raises questions about its wine-centric economy.

PAUL SLOAN: The helicopter just landed.


PURPER: One answer might be found at the city's small municipal airport. Looking out at helicopters and private jets parked on the tarmac, the city's economic development manager, Paul Sloan, says this tiny airport actually has a long runway for its size, and that runway could help the region's economic future take flight.

SLOAN: So a spaceport is a license. A lot of times people imagine "Jetsons" (ph) and spacey-looking buildings, but it's a license that you apply for.

PURPER: For years now, Sloan has been leading the charge to turn this airport into a commercial spaceport. That would allow it to expand its operations to small spacecraft carrying mostly satellites. They'd take off from the runway like any other plane, reach the Earth's orbit, deploy their cargo and then...

SLOAN: The space planes return down to Earth, and they land horizontally on a runway. And what you see here at ground level would just be like a small jet taking off and landing.

PURPER: If the FAA grants the license, Sloan hopes the spaceport here would attract aerospace companies, developing other parts of the city into a kind of tech corridor, and that would create good-paying jobs. Paso Robles' economy is almost entirely agricultural, so a spaceport is about diversification rather than space, specifically. But is it the right answer?

LYNN HAMILTON: As most questions in economics, it's answered with - it depends.

PURPER: Lynn Hamilton is a professor of agribusiness at nearby Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. She studied the Paso Robles groundwater basin, and she says it's been unsustainably overpumped, mostly by agriculture, for years now.

HAMILTON: The attitude here, it seems to be - until recently - that, oh, we're just a rainy season away from being saved. And I think people are now starting to realize that that's not true any longer.

PURPER: Not true due to climate change - one of Hamilton's studies projects huge economic losses for the Paso Robles' ag economy from expected water cutbacks. With that in mind, she says, a spaceport might not be as helpful as it sounds. Wells are going dry left and right.

HAMILTON: If we can't resolve the issue as it is now, bringing more people to the area isn't really going to help.

PURPER: But shrinking the city isn't really an option.


PURPER: Back at Tablas Creek, manager Jason Haas says Paso Robles can really benefit from growth through diversification, and a spaceport could even bring more business to his winery.

HAAS: I think it's a really good thing that there be a broader economic base than the tourism here. I would welcome there being a vibrant spaceport - like, that'd be cool.

PURPER: As long, Haas says, as water managers can come up with a plan that works for everyone. For NPR News, I'm Benjamin Purper in Paso Robles.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Benjamin Purper
Benjamin Purper came to KCBX in May of 2021 from California’s Inland Empire, where he spent three years as a reporter and Morning Edition host at KVCR in San Bernardino. Dozens of his stories have aired on KQED’s California Report, and his work has broadcast on NPR's news magazines, as well. In addition to radio, Ben has worked as a newspaper reporter and freelance writer.