Buzz in West Texas is about Jeff Bezos space craft launch site

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VAN HORN, Texas -- When Ronald Stasny, the owner of a 30,000-acre ranch straddling Culberson and Hudspeth counties here got a call from a Seattle lawyer in mid-2003 expressing interest in buying his property, he said no.

But the attorney, Elizabeth Korrell, was persistent. She called him every month, Mr. Stasny says. Eventually he became curious about the identity of the prospective buyer, for whom money seemed to be no object. Ms. Korrell didn't say who her client was or why he wanted the land.

Mr. Stasny learned that two ranches adjacent to his were also talking to an anonymous buyer. And by early 2004, the offer to Mr. Stasny had become so rich -- he won't say how rich -- that he agreed to sell. Within a few months, three other adjoining ranches were also snapped up.

The land deeds for the ranches were purchased by corporate entities with monikers including "James Cook L.P.," "Jolliet Holdings," "Coronado Ventures," and "Cabot Enterprises" -- all of them named for famous explorers and all of them using the same address, c/o Zefram LLC.

In January last year, Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon.com, spoke to a newspaper here and cleared up the mystery. He said that he had purchased land in Culberson and Hudspeth counties, 25 miles north of this tiny West Texas town east of El Paso. Mr. Bezos's purpose: to build a launch pad for his fledgling commercial space venture, Blue Origin LLC, which will offer suborbital trips to space. Mr. Bezos is "clearly a man ahead of his time," says Mr. Stasny.

Over the past three years, Mr. Bezos, 42 years old, has put together about 290,000 acres of land for his space project. According to a report filed with the Federal Aviation Administration, Blue Origin may start commercial operations as early as 2010, conducting about 52 launches a year from Texas.

Van Horn locals are finding that a man reportedly worth $4.3 billion doesn't necessarily make the most neighborly of neighbors. The famously tight-lipped Mr. Bezos has conducted his dealings in secrecy. He has clamped down on chatter by signing locals to confidentiality agreements. He has brushed off townspeople who have tried to make plans to promote the area through a museum exhibit on his space venture. One of his new neighbors, Phil Guitar, who tried to resolve a property-line dispute with Mr. Bezos last year, says he was never able to get to Mr. Bezos through his attorneys.

"He's pretty insulated," says another neighbor, rancher Jim Kiehne, who recently tried to discuss the local battle over water rights with Mr. Bezos but couldn't reach him. "You've got to talk to three colonels and generals and all that stuff" and then still can't get to him, he says.

Mr. Bezos's behavior is particularly galling to some residents of Van Horn, pop. 2,345, because the town could use some publicity. Often seen as just a truck stop on Interstate 10, Van Horn doesn't even have a movie theater, much less a shopping mall. It tried to attract a prison once, and a veterans home, but nothing came of it, according to the town's mayor, Okey Lucas.

Mr. Bezos is "so closemouthed that it's almost frustrating," says Larry Simpson, a local businessman who runs an office-supply store, a newspaper called the Van Horn Advocate and the airport gas station. Mr. Simpson says the town could attract more real-estate developers and others if only Mr. Bezos were willing to chime in.

Other townspeople defend Mr. Bezos. "We appreciate him not wanting everyone to know his business, especially in a small town where everyone knows your business," says Jeff McCoy, Van Horn's economic-development director and Mr. Simpson's son-in-law.

A Blue Origin spokesman declined to comment. Ms. Korrell declined to comment. Mr. Bezos and Amazon representatives didn't respond to requests for comment.

Clues to Mr. Bezos's interest in West Texas first emerged in March 2003 after media reports that the billionaire had been in a helicopter crash 20 miles from Alpine, Texas, which lies southeast of Van Horn. After the crash, in which he wasn't seriously injured, Mr. Bezos visited Pete Gallego, a member of the state House of Representatives to explain he was interested in setting up a local space-launch site, Mr. Gallego says. According to Mr. Gallego, Mr. Bezos particularly wanted advice about Hudspeth and Culberson counties, both of which are in the legislator's district, and asked which politicians and agencies he should speak with. "He was very upfront, no cloak and dagger," says Mr. Gallego.

Mr. Bezos wasn't as open with others. Later that year, the billionaire's lawyer, Ms. Korrell, called Mr. Stasny, the ranch owner says, without disclosing that she worked for Mr. Bezos. At one point, Ms. Korrell persuaded Mr. Stasny to allow the prospective buyer and his wife to tour the ranch and to videotape the ranch house, which they did, at a time when he wouldn't be there.

Mr. Stasny says he decided to sell in January 2004 when it became clear "it was foolish for me to turn down an offer that I might never see (again) for the ranch." A person familiar with the matter says Mr. Bezos paid about $7.5 million for Mr. Stasny's property, or $250 an acre. Mr. Stasny declines to disclose the sale price because he signed a confidentiality agreement.

That same month, local real-estate broker Janet Helm -- also representing an anonymous buyer -- approached Mr. Stasny's neighbor, George Wilson, about buying his 52,000-acre ranch. Mr. Wilson, who was struggling with the area's eight-year drought, quickly sold. He declines to disclose the sale price. Over the next few months, other adjoining ranches also sold for undisclosed prices to an unidentified buyer. Ms. Helm declined to comment.

Once several locals got wind of the sales, they asked Chris Stahl, the caretaker of Mr. Wilson's ranch, about his new boss. Mr. Stahl wouldn't talk, says Mr. Guitar, the neighboring rancher, and would only refer to his new boss as "the new owner." Mr. Stahl declines to comment.

In January 2005, Mr. Bezos's identity surfaced when the CEO conducted an interview with the Van Horn Advocate. For the first time, Mr. Bezos revealed he was putting Blue Origin's launch site in Texas. When asked why he chose Culberson County, Mr. Bezos said he once spent summers on his grandfather's South Texas ranch and wanted to give his family the same kind of experience, according to the paper.

That was when Van Horn locals tried to get in touch with Mr. Bezos -- and ran into trouble. When rancher Mr. Guitar tried to discuss a property-line dispute with Mr. Bezos, he was directed to call an office in the Northwest. "We got a hold of a lady in Seattle. She said not to call her anymore. We were supposed to talk to some guy who lives on the ranch. We got to him and were told to talk to one of their attorneys" back in Seattle, Mr. Guitar says. "We got no response."

Blue Origin and Mr. Bezos were also closemouthed with town and county officials. Eager for jobs and tax revenue, Van Horn development director Mr. McCoy and others asked Blue Origin last year to estimate the number of jobs the venture might generate. Blue Origin declined to do so in discussions its representatives had with Mr. McCoy and other Van Horn or county officials, Mr. McCoy says.

Mr. Bezos accumulated more Texas property last year, buying one ranch in March and another in May. Mr. Bezos has since started constructing Blue Origin's launch site. As many as 40 trucks have been spotted in Hudspeth County setting up power lines to run to Mr. Bezos's property, according to Zedoch "Sandy" Pridgon, Hudspeth County's appraiser. According to the FAA, Blue Origin estimated that it would have as many as 70 construction workers monthly at the peak of the launch site's construction.

Mr. Bezos is "just like you or someone else, he doesn't tell anyone all his plans," says Mr. Lucas.



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