- Brownsville residents are divided as SpaceX sets up its main launch facilities close to the area.
- Some locals are excited for Elon Musk to create job opportunities and pump money into the city.
- Others are concerned SpaceX will displace locals, hike prices, and destroy the nature reserves.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Residents of Brownsville, a small city in Texas, are divided. Their town is now home to SpaceX’s rocket-production facilities, which only promises to grow bigger.
Some locals told Insider they’re at their wits’ end with SpaceX as the aerospace company sets off explosions and pushes locals out of the area. But others see it as a positive impact on the economy and residents’ wellbeing.
Brownsville, which lies 20 miles west of SpaceX’s launch facilities on the Gulf Coast, is known for being one of the poorest areas in the US. The 300,000-person city also has a very high unemployment rate.
When SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted at the end of March that he was donating $30 million to Brownsville — $20 million to schools and $10 million for revitalization — it split the city.
—Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 30, 2021
Musk also announced that he was building a new city called Starbase at SpaceX’s launch facilities which would be “much larger” than Boca Chica Village, where the company is developing its Starship rocket.
Brownsville’s mayor Trey Mendez was surprised at Musk’s announcement and said in an interview with KSAT 12 it was “exciting” that the community could have the chance to become the face of “space exploration and innovation.”
Mendez said he hoped Musk’s capital would help “accelerate the progress [in Brownsville] even more.”
But there is division between those living in the south Texas city. Some are concerned that SpaceX’s developments will be devastating for the people, nature, and ecosystems there. Others welcome the job opportunities, economic prosperity, and modernization that Musk’s company could bring to the town.
SpaceX didn’t immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
Every time a rocket blows up on the launchpad, it hurls debris into the nearby nature sanctuaries in the area. SpaceX has witnessed four out of five of its Starship prototypes explode, meaning that metals and pieces of machinery are lying in areas that have never been disturbed before.
“These ecosystems are our community’s lifeblood,” said Bekah Hinojosa, resident of Brownsville and member of Another Gulf is Possible, an organization working on environmental issues along the southern Gulf Coast.
“SpaceX explosions are littering our ecosystems, home to the endangered ocelot, aplomado falcon, and numerous migratory birds,” she said.
Xandra Treviño is a member of the art collective Las Imaginistas. It’s an initiative that aims to connect with officials and lower-income residents in the Rio Grande Valley, where Brownsville is situated, to improve quality of life. As a resident, she told Insider that she’s already seeing the negative effects of SpaceX in the area.
“Any SpaceX expansion would be occupying more land considered sacred to the local indigenous Carrizo Comecrudo tribe,” Treviño said, who lives in the area.
Residents face disruption every time they’re told to leave their homes before a SpaceX launch, she added.
SpaceX jobs aren’t for the locals
In March, Musk encouraged people to move to the Brownsville area, saying that SpaceX needs specific jobs in engineering, tech, and other sectors.
—Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 30, 2021
Residents felt that Musk’s Twitter callout, however, wasn’t directed at them, but instead anyone in the US who wanted a career at SpaceX.
Claudia Michelle Serrano, a digital content coordinator for Las Imaginistas, who lives in Brownsville told Insider that Musk’s job proposals via Twitter were offered on a national level to those interested in working for the space company.
“The jobs being created aren’t for us,” she said. “There is zero transparency on the jobs SpaceX created locally.”
Jobs in Brownsville are low-wage, meaning that residents on those salaries won’t be able to keep up with increasing costs in the city, according to Serrano.
Christine Leal, a 17-year-old high school student living in the Rio Grande Valley, told Insider that although her dream is to work for SpaceX after studying engineering at university, she’s worried about “the immense danger,” which the company will bring to the area.
Pulling in engineers from outside of the valley will lead residents to be financially disadvantaged and pushed out of their homes, she said. “There’s a large probability that [Musk] will further develop Brownsville, but neglect the locals who were already here.”
Leal said although the company’s project will be amazing for the local economy, “Elon and SpaceX need to make sure that locals have a role in that development and don’t push us aside. If he doesn’t, then we risk losing our culture, land, customs, and traditions.”
SpaceX could drive residents out of Brownsville
Low-income residents could be forced to leave their homes due to spiking prices caused by SpaceX’s presence in the area, locals told Insider.
Musk announced the construction of SpaceX’s facilities in 2014. Since then, the cost of living in the area has gradually increased as more people from across the US flock to Brownsville to work for the billionaire.
If the city of Starbase goes ahead, the small village and its leaders would have access to eminent domain, which could let them legally force holdouts to sell their homes, Insider reported May 8.
“The biggest concern is displacement,” said Serrano. “Our home could be lost with rapidly increasing taxes or others who rent will be priced out.”
Investors have been rushing to Brownsville to buy homes, sending house prices rocketing, Insider reported in April. But many residents aren’t able to afford these prices, leaving them with a tough decision of whether to stay in the area or not.
Serrano said this could have a huge impact on the Buena Vida area of downtown Brownsville, a historically immigrant and Spanish speaking area.
Many of the locals who spoke to Insider believe the local leaders have a lot to answer for. Freddy Jimenez, editor of media platform Trucha, told us the leaders of Cameron County and City of Brownsville don’t represent the everyday people living in the area as they look to profit from the space company’s developments. Conversations between the representatives and SpaceX have been kept under the wraps, he added.
“Working people, community members, indigenous people, and the beautiful ecology of the region is being put at risk and exploited,” Jimenez said. “Shame on our local leaders and shame on the interests they serve.”
SpaceX controls beach access and fishing
Robert Avitia, who was born and raised in Brownsville, still lives in the city where he runs his business. He thinks that SpaceX has done wonders by pumping more money into the area.
Although Avitia believes there are more positives than negatives with Musk coming to Brownsville, he agrees that rocket debris in the wildlife sanctuaries and the closing off of Boca Chica beach are serious issues in the community.
Boca Chica beach was a place where people could hang out whenever they wanted, Avitia told Insider.
“Now it’s controlled. You can’t get in and out whenever you want to. It’s only when they allow it, based on what’s happening at SpaceX,” he said.
The beach was a big part of the culture in the area. Avitia recalled the fond memories he had with his father of coming down to the beach to fish. Now, SpaceX sometimes doesn’t allow people to fish as it’s too close to the facilities.
Hinojosa, who raised concerns about rocket litter earlier in this report, also said SpaceX closing off the beach access for locals threatens people’s livelihoods by preventing people from fishing and feeding their families, and enjoying the beach.
Some residents see the positive side
But Avitia is one of the many people who welcome SpaceX’s expansion in Brownsville. Beforehand, the city was a “ghost town” with little to offer, he said. Now, it’s become more modern as new restaurants and businesses pop up on the streets, the tourism sector grows, and highways are updated he added.
“There is division here,” he said. “You have people that are just comfortable and don’t want to change… I hate to say this but the ones that want to stay comfortable are going to lose, they’re going to miss out.”
Restricting access to the beach and fishing comes with change, said Avitia.
“[Musk] donating money was like him saying, “Hey, I’m here to help. I’m not here to take away. I’m here to help.” And I truly believe he’s here to help,” he added.
Four other people who spoke to Insider said they were also excited about Brownsville being the home of SpaceX.
One of them, Rudy Guzman, a lifelong resident of Brownsville, told Insider that SpaceX is exactly what the city needs “to attract outside investors and grow our local economy.” Others said it would motivate children and make a huge improvement to education.