If you pass through Van Horn, you might be surprised to encounter the beautiful and historic Hotel El Capitan, which was purchased in 2007 by Lanna and Joe Duncan—the same couple responsible for the El Paisano Hotel in Marfa—and renovated to the tune of $2.5 million. Unlike Marfa, whose quirky charms have made it a popular tourist destination, Van Horn is a sparse town with a population of under 2,000. It’s within a few hours of both Big Bend and Carlsbad Caverns, but there’s little that makes Van Horn, whose per-capita income is $13,775, an obvious location for a higher-end hotel with an upscale restaurant/bar on its ground floor. But if you spend an evening in the Hotel El Capitan bar, you’re likely to get your first clue: There will probably be some contractors who work with Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin aerospace company enjoying steaks and watching basketball, before heading out in the morning to install, say, a liquid nitrogen system at the “Corn Ranch” facility that Blue Origin operates nearby.
Bezos owns 290,000 acres of West Texas property just outside of Van Horn. On the one hand, that’s awesome: Space exploration is fascinating and if a multi-billionaire wants to spend a bunch of money figuring out new and better ways to go to outer space, well, there are a lot of less interesting things he could be doing with that money. Science is cool and there’s something nice about the fact that five decades after the Apollo Program began, the home of space exploration is still Texas.
On the other hand, here’s a 2006 story from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about what Bezos is like as a neighbor:
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.
The article has more to say about how Bezos acquired his 290,000 acres—which is to say, persistently making offers to ranchers who refused to sell, until the offer was so lucrative that they felt foolish not to:
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.
It’s hard to find fault with Bezos for offering big money to buy what he wants, and making millionaires out of West Texas ranchers in the process—but there’s something about a billionaire using his substantial resources to acquire things that aren’t really for sale that’s uncomfortable.
Most of Bezos’s acquisitions happened in the mid-00’s, but in the years that followed, others have joined the privately-owned space race. Namely, PayPal founder/Tesla Motors CEO/Hyperloop designer Elon Musk, whose space exploration enterprise, SpaceX, is buying acreage a few hundred miles from Van Horn—this time, along the Rio Grande Valley in Cameron County.
The Valley Morning Star reports that SpaceX purchased 72 lots near Boca Chica Beach at a tax sale in Cameron County last week. SpaceX currently hasn’t decided where it’ll be building its facility, but South Texas is hoping that it’ll be there.
Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos continues to be cautiously optimistic that the efforts of the county, Cameron County Space Port Development Corp., Brownsville, its economic development arm, other organizations and local and state officials will pay off.
“We are all going in the same direction and we’re on the same page to make sure we’re selected,” Cascos said.
“From our end, we are doing everything that we need to be doing.”
The developments come in advance of the Federal Aviation Administration’s final environmental impact statement on the site, expected before the end of the year, and SpaceX’s decision on the site.
The SpaceX investment in Cameron County isn’t anywhere near the size of the property that Bezos owns in West Texas, of course—the Morning Star estimates that it’s under 25 acres—but as the project develops and the decisions are made, that number could quickly multiply by serious factors. At the same time, if Van Horn’s experience with Bezos is any indication of what Musk might mean for Cameron County, Brownsville should be a bit wary. As the Post-Gazette reported in 2006:
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.
It’s been seven years since they wrote that, of course—but aside from the El Capitan, not much has changed for Van Horn.