The little county airport on the outskirts of Fabens has always been a go-slow operation. But that’s about to change galactically, as UTEP moves in to build aerospace research and rocket-testing facilities.
UTEP’s engineering department intends to spend millions of dollars there to develop its new Technology Research and Innovation Acceleration Park, where it will test next-generation rocketry for space exploration and defense.
The department will also use its NASA grants to establish design facilities and a satellite ground station at the Fabens Airport to track and communicate with UTEP’s own satellites – two of which will go up next year.
Negotiations are underway between El Paso County and the university to give UTEP control of five acres on the 400-acre airport property, and the option to expand as needed.
“They’re very eager to move in immediately and get this started,” El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar said Monday.
“If we can get this done by the end of the calendar year, they can immediately start using it in the spring semester.”
At her state of the county address last year, Escobar hinted that something big might be ahead for the Fabens airport, but the official announcement didn’t come until last week.
“The county for decades has been sitting on 400 acres of an FAA-approved airport,” she said. “For all of that time, we would venture to say, it’s not been used to its fullest potential.
“We have not capitalized on this really significant asset of the county’s, and we are ready to change that.”
UTEP President Diana Natalicio said the university is already on the national map because of the unprecedented growth of its research programs at a school that was never expected to reach such heights.
“We have a research portfolio of about $320 million in grants, from which we then expend funds to hire students in laboratories and to create wonderful educational opportunities to build facilities and to acquire sophisticated instrumentation,” she said.
“That enables us to compete for even more grants.”
What’s been missing, Natalicio said, were job opportunities for UTEP graduates who wanted to stay in El Paso – particularly those with science and engineering degrees.
“What we’re announcing today is exactly a huge first step in building just that kind of climate,” she said.
Natalicio credits Dr. Ahsan Choudhuri, chairman of UTEP’s engineering department, for his energy and vision in growing the university’s capacity through research grants.
Choudhuri is also director of UTEP’s Center for Space Exploration and Technology Research, which became a NASA research center in 2009 through a $5 million grant.
Asked by email how much UTEP will spend at the Fabens Airport, Choudhuri said, it will certainly be in the millions. The grant portfolio of his department stands at $28.2 million, he said.
“The true purpose of our center is to give students from this area a clear shot at coveted aerospace careers,” Choudhuri said. “That is the reason we exist. We exist for our students.”
Establishing a facility where students can build and test rockets – and track satellites launched by the university – will change perceptions about UTEP and El Paso, he said.
“We want to send a clear message to the rest of the country that El Paso is not a destination if you’re looking for low-wage labor,” he said.
“Further, this is the place where frontier technologies are being developed and the next generation of engineers and technologists are being created.”
UTEP’s space center now supports 88 undergraduate and graduate students, but adding the Fabens technology park will allow tremendous growth, he said.
“We believe that in six or seven years, the other site will house more than 250 students,” Choudhuri said.
For Fabens, an unincorporated community with three stoplights and about 8,300 residents, the research park could bring big changes.
A day after the announcement, some Fabens residents were still waiting for the news. Florist owner Luis Flores was surprised that no one who came to his store said anything about the biggest news in Fabens since the opening of the Tornillo-Guadalupe Port of Entry earlier this year.
“I need to see more about it and what’s going on,” Flores said.
At the Fabens Hardware store, a cluttered place where customers can still buy plumbing and electrical accessories one at a time, owner Simon Peña had heard a little about the research park but no details.
“It sounds like something different, but no one’s talking about it here,” he said. “I told my wife, ‘Uh-oh, they’re coming over here!’”
Noting that Fabens waited more than 20 years for the new international bridge, he laughed and said, “Maybe I won’t be here.”