Witt unveils future of Mojave Air and Space Port

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Witt unveils future of Mojave Air and Space PortAfter ushering in more than a decade of thriving development at Mojave Air and Space Port, CEO Stuart Witt is reinvesting the gains of that success in an expansion project that he hopes will take the installation through the next century.

In a state with a dismal economy and a hostile business climate, the airport remained a flurry of activity in such diverse industries as private spaceflight and wind energy. Witt gave the News Review an inside look at the legacy project that could cement Mojave as a nexus of those industries — and others — for the foreseeable future.

As Kern County leads the state and the nation in economic recovery (see related story, this page), Witt acknowledged the unique advantages of the region — ideal location (under clear skies and accessible by multiple railways), a highly technical workforce (smack in the middle of the military and industrial RDT&E giants of the aerospace corridor) and political representation from leaders who still fight to protect an environment where the entrepreneurial spirit can flourish.

Before coming to Mojave in 2002, Witt spent his first career as a Navy top gun and his second as a defense contractor with China Lake. He raised three sons in Ridgecrest and involved himself in numerous civic organizations. (Most recently, he was named chair of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a national organization representing the interest of private companies.)

Although his first brush with Mojave actually happened decades ago when the engine of his plane failed and he managed to land with no injuries or property damage, the official Stu Witt-Mojave story begins with him eating a sandwich at his desk shortly after he took the job.

While contemplating a more-than-half-empty facility on his lunch hour, he decided to take a drive through town. On that trip he examined the company names stamped on the wind utility poles lining Mojave’s Oak Creek Road. He scribbled down those names, and called each one to ask where their maintenance facilities were located. None were in Mojave. Few were even in California.

“So here we were with all this empty space, and frankly it was ugly empty space. I was able to convince my board to craft leases that would allow companies to rent for a year for free. We collected the 13th month’s rent up front, so the first check those companies actually wrote was for Month 14. Now for a year I probably looked like the village idiot. But come Month 14, I was looking pretty smart.”

That practice not only brought wind and rail companies to Mojave, but also prompted start-ups and established companies in other industry to bring operations to Mojave. Although some companies failed in that first critical year, Witt noted that the majority made it. More importantly, some were able to restructure after their failures to become viable companies. For the airport, his plan yielded dozens of new contracts and added at least 1,000 more employees who come to work every day at Mojave.

Witt said the critical point in that success was the board’s willingness to reevaluate its current business model and try something different. “You have to do something to get the phones ringing. Look at the market and see what you have to offer — even if it’s just information.

“So here we are now in 2013, having made it through the recession at 100-percent capacity. And now we’re developing new land and building new hangars.”

Over the years Mojave has seen some high-profile success stories. In the last decade Scaled Composites drew international attention during the X Prize races, where SpaceShipOne ultimately put the first civilian into space. Today, billionaires Richard Branson (founder of Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Galactic) and Paul Allen (co-founder of Microsoft) are building private spacecraft at Mojave.

Witt also found overlapping technology in the wind industry. “I asked who made their blades, which are made of fiberglass, carbon and epoxy — exactly the same thing Burt Rutan builds at Scaled Composites. I said, ‘Those blades are basically airfoils, and require the exact same skill set to build, maintain and repair as composite airplanes.’”

Witt worked with Antelope Valley College to extend its composite courses in order to feed a steady stream of skilled workers to Mojave.

“I get a lot of credit for this, but I don’t think what I did was all that smart. I just got up, went outside and looked around.”

Over the years Witt has used the airport’s steady revenue — much of which comes from the wind industry — to widen and repave runways, repaint hangars and fund other facility upgrades. The rest was socked away to fund his next, and most ambitious, improvement project — turning the 2,200 acres of land on the north side of the airport into “valuable dirt.”

“One of my demo guys came to me and said, ‘You know, if you bring power and water out here, we could add 50 jobs tomorrow.’ I said, ‘That’s all I gotta do?’ I have already seen what happens if you do what one tenant asks — activity breeds activity.”

After getting approval from his board, he is already in Phase I development.

“So we’re going to have water, power and fiber out here,” said Witt. “I don’t know where this is going, I just know I had to build it. It took a long time to save the money, but now it’s ours — we don’t owe anybody anything for this. This was not an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act project, this is the Stu Witt reinvestment. Our team takes a lot of pride in that.”

He and his team have received a lot of recognition for those efforts. Witt has been the subject of numerous national and international profiles — including magazine articles, a TED talk, and most recently a Fox News feature. The Antelope Valley Board of Trade will also present him with its Navigating Change Award next month.

“I don’t look at this as navigating change, I just look at this as responsibly running your business.”

See also related article, this page.

Story First Published: 2013-02-06