Why SpaceX keeps sending a senior executive to a tiny Texas beach town – Business Insider
SpaceX, the rocket company founded by Elon Musk, is trying to build a private spaceport in Boca Chica at the southern tip of Texas and one day launch missions to Mars from the site using a system called Starship.
But first, the company is trying to buy out a nearby neighborhood of retiree-age residents called Boca Chica Village to make the launch site safer and easier to use.
A senior executive at SpaceX is visiting holdout homeowners in person to try and convince them to sell to the rocket company.
However, not everyone seems inclined to sell their family homes to SpaceX, and that could set the stage for a legal case.
SpaceX did not respond to Business Insider’s requests for comment.
This story is the second in a Business Insider series about SpaceX in South Texas called “Last Town Before Mars.” Read the previous story here.
It’s not every day that a senior official at SpaceX calls you up, asks you to sell your home to the rocket company founded by the tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, and explains that your property may one day become part of a Mars spaceport.
But that call recently came for Maria Pointer, who lives full time with her husband, Ray, in Boca Chica: a lobe of coastal prairie at the southern tip of Texas that’s remote and rich with wildlife. The Pointers live adjacent to a formerly quiet hamlet of several dozen houses that locals call Boca Chica Village. The nearest populated area is Brownsville, which is a 30-minute drive west and where approximately half the population lives below the poverty line.
When Maria Pointer took SpaceX’s call on January 7, the official she spoke with was Dave Finlay, the company’s senior director of finance and now, apparently, South Texas real-estate dealmaker. She said their conversation lasted about two hours.
His overture came after years of relative silence from SpaceX and amid disquieting uncertainty the Pointers felt about their future. The couple told Business Insider they had planned to grow old and die in their custom-built home — but SpaceX’s arrival in September 2014 put a giant question mark on everything. Should they stay? Should they go? Should they spend money to improve their property or even make repairs?
Finlay sugarcoated nothing about the risk of trying to cling to Boca Chica, Maria Pointer said, adding that he addressed years’ worth of pent-up questions, fears, and frustrations. So after the call with Finlay, she felt relieved — and later decided it was time to leave.
“He’s a real likable guy who has enlightened all of us,” she said of Finlay. “The minute he started shining a light on things, I started having closure.”
Finlay didn’t stop with phone calls, though. Every other week or so, from January through February, he has traveled about 1,400 miles to the area from SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, often for days, to knock on the doors of residents and make personal visits.
Finlay’s goal is not to make friends. Rather, it is to convince everyone to accept a buyout offer that SpaceX floated to area homeowners in September — which many had not agreed to months later — before Musk “loses his patience,” Finlay told multiple residents.
Finlay’s strategy appears to be working. According to Business Insider’s reporting, more than half of the remaining homes in Boca Chica have now sold to SpaceX, including the Pointers’, or are near to or in closing. The rest are in other stages of dealmaking.
Key to converting some residents has been listening to them about, and even owning up to, mistakes of the past.
“They really need these houses. They’re being very foolish,” one former homeowner said. “As smart as they are about technological stuff, they’re not smart about people.”
The former homeowner, whose identity Business Insider confirmed, spoke on the condition of anonymity to maintain their privacy.
Life in SpaceX’s ‘corporate shadow’
Turning Boca Chica into a private spaceport was a dream of Musk’s as early as 2011. That’s when he had SpaceX employees call the office of then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry about launching a dozen commercial satellite missions a year from the site. Not long afterward, according to The Dallas Morning News, Musk met with officials from the state and Cameron County, where Boca Chica is, and pushed for incentives to bring SpaceX there.
The Pointers and a number of their neighbors doubted the company would actually land in Boca Chica when news about SpaceX’s interest broke in April 2012. There seemed to be far more suitable locations father north in Texas — ones without a cluster of retirees hanging around — they said, as well as in Georgia, Puerto Rico, Florida, and several other places SpaceX was scouting.
But in Texas, SpaceX spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in lobbying, donated tens of thousands of dollars to key officials’ campaigns, and even paid for politicians to visit its headquarters, according to The Dallas Morning News.
Government officials eventually approved a package worth $15 million in tax breaks and job-creation incentives in 2013. SpaceX then won federal, state, and local approval in July 2014 to build a spaceport. The rocket company finally broke ground in September 2014.
“At the very, very beginning, I saw surveyors outside our windows. I thought, ‘Oh god, people here are going to burn me on a cross if I’m not with SpaceX,'” Maria Pointer said. Thus began what she has consistently described over the years as the beginning of “life in a corporate shadow” or a “corporate footprint.”
The company’s presence expanded quickly. SpaceX bulldozed grasses and cacti next to the Pointers’ home to erect a bustling barbwire-fenced work yard. The company also trucked in enough dirt to bury an American football field 13 stories deep and dumped it atop squishy soil near Boca Chica Beach to help compact it into a launchpad foundation. A few homes SpaceX acquired early on became workshops, storage sites, and delivery centers. Towering spacecraft-tracking antennas from NASA’s old space-shuttle program settled in next to an old corner store.
SpaceX might have offered to buy the village early on, but that did not happen — residents say they reached out with few if any offers back then. “They don’t approach you, you approach them,” a resident told Business Insider in 2019.
Most residents interviewed by Business Insider over the past year described the company as being “indifferent” to their existence or even “a nonneighbor.”
In 2015, some in the village attempted to open a dialog by asking SpaceX to hold private meetings. The company hosted two. According to several accounts of those meetings, SpaceX told residents they would soon need badges to pass through a security gate to reach their homes and, for safety reasons, be asked to leave for many hours during rocket-launch activities. The company also said it may put up temporarily displaced residents in Brownsville hotels, according to their accounts.
But SpaceX rocket failures in 2015 and 2016, along with weaker-than-expected demand for the company’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launchers — which were supposed to fly commercial missions monthly from Boca Chica — ground launch-site development nearly to a halt. Though the project’s future was in doubt, SpaceX never left the area, the private meetings stopped, and an information vacuum grew.
“They did not like to answer any questions,” Sam Clauson told Business Insider in April, when he was still a part-time resident. (County records show he and his wife deeded their Boca Chica property to SpaceX in December.) “They tell their people to basically don’t answer any questions.”
Those years of relative dormancy ended with a flurry of activity in 2018. Construction workers swarmed the dirt pile to sculpt it into a rudimentary but functional launchpad. Giant tanks for storing liquid propellants were delivered. SpaceX-owned homes became crash pads for workers, and the company even turned one into a recreation center with a bar, the anonymous former homeowner said. Starhopper, a gleaming steel-rocket-ship prototype, appeared seemingly out of nowhere after the new year.
Cameron County eventually began closing off sections of Highway 4 — the only road out to Boca Chica — to permit SpaceX to move equipment and conduct rocket tests. Law-enforcement officials stopped residents on the way to their homes and even threatened to arrest some who expressed frustration at the situation, several homeowners told Business Insider.
Today, development work continues to accelerate as Musk spends more time in Boca Chica to oversee SpaceX’s development of the Starship launch system, upon which the company’s future success may hinge.
“We can’t sleep anymore. It’s impossible to sleep,” Maria Pointer said. “If you don’t hear sounds, you feel vibrations. You feel pile drivers outside your window.”
Amid all of this work, SpaceX’s attitude to the village shifted, morphing from relative silence into a seemingly generous plea for everyone to sell their homes in the name of safety — and to do it quickly.
On September 12, the company sent every homeowner in the hamlet a buyout offer letter via the real-estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle, or JLL. Most bristled at the deal’s initial two-week deadline (which was later relaxed). Though the deal offered three times a base appraisal, some residents described the appraisal as a “lowball” and “bulls—.” And even with a three-times offer, according to nearly all the residents we spoke with, the funds wouldn’t compensate for “a like property” in a similarly secluded low-tax area within a stone’s throw of an undeveloped and pristine public beach.
So two weeks later, while Musk was in town to present progress on Starship, the CEO met with villagers during a brief and “awkward” meeting. Attendees said the group “made it clear we were not happy” and didn’t “play nice” with the billionaire CEO.
That meeting brought something of a turning point, though: Musk said that while the three-times figure was nonnegotiable, the base appraisal value was indeed flexible. This convinced some residents to sell in the following months as they found ways with JLL to increase the on-paper worth of their properties.
However, as many as 15 homeowners had their independent appraisals rejected. And as the weeks wore on with slow momentum on sales, many villagers grew weary of dealing with JLL and requested to work directly with SpaceX.
The rocket company dispatched Finlay to coax villagers to turn over their keys before the county might try some legal remedy to force them out. (Business Insider requested an interview with County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr., but his office said the judge was traveling for work and unavailable to speak to until mid-February.)
‘My goal is to provide any support that I can’
Finlay seems an odd choice for the job based on his LinkedIn profile. His page describes a senior executive who’s focused on initial public offerings, equity raises, inventory management, and bean counting rather than dealmaking in Texas residential real estate. Then again, his specialties apparently include contract negotiation and investor relations — indicating he is a person who is skilled in smoothing out kinks and getting deals done.
However SpaceX decided on the person for the job, Musk wanted everyone gone by March 31, residents said representatives from both JLL and SpaceX told them. SpaceX ultimately deemed the task important enough to pull a senior executive out of the office and send him into the sand, mud, and wind of Boca Chica. (SpaceX did not respond to multiple requests for comment and interviews.)
Finlay began outreach to residents as soon as December, starting with those who had reached an impasse in negotiations with JLL. (The real-estate firm declined to comment on-the-record for this story.)
“I work at SpaceX in California and would really appreciate the opportunity to discuss the SpaceX offer to purchase your property,” Finlay told a resident in an email sent the morning of January 3. “My goal is to provide any support that I can.”
The resident replied that SpaceX’s offer “would not even come close to allowing us to purchase another property anywhere else close enough to the beach for us.”
In his response two days later, Finlay took a conciliatory tone.
“I am very willing to work with you to correct any error in your appraised value that drives the $ amount of the purchase offer,” he wrote. “My goal is to make it as accurate as possible and if any mistakes were made we will fix them. I will be in the Village all day on Monday should you be willing to meet in person – I’d like to explore any opportunities I may have to help you.”
Finlay physically showed up on January 13 to walk the neighborhood. He spent hours that week with some residents, like the Pointers, and returned in following weeks to pick up where he left off and work on other holdouts.
Residents who met him said even though they suspected he was the one rejecting their appraisals through JLL, he was an astute listener who made them feel heard. He also coached residents on how to improve the value of their existing appraisals.
“Finlay was a reprieve, the last resort that gave us any kind of voice,” Maria Pointer said, adding that Finlay apologized for the stress caused to her and her husband over the years by the company’s presence. “We looked at his visit as a positive step.”
Dave Cohen is another (now-former) homeowner who sold after being approached directly by Finlay.
“I found Dave Finlay a pleasure to talk to. He seemed to be very forthright with me,” Cohen told Business Insider, but added the three-times-appraisal deal structure — which Musk dictated to be fair to residents — has limited Finlay’s ability to more rapidly close deals. “He has his cage that he has to live in.”
According to Business Insider’s reporting, residents have been paid close to $100,000 on the low end to more than $1 million for their properties on the high end. Both Maria and Ray Pointer said they’ve become fans of what Musk and SpaceX are doing and want to leave but that getting retiree-age people like themselves out of the way is “harder than throwing money at the problem.”
“We’ve got to find a house, move, get surgery, and family members die in the middle of all this,” Maria said, referring to the passing of her former husband and the father of her children in 2019.
Celia Johnson, a Brownsville native and Boca Chica resident since 1992, expressed similar thoughts but said she still wondered what SpaceX was thinking by picking the village area for its base of operations.
“It’s not that I don’t like progress or SpaceX, either. It’s just that there’s hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of acres here,” Johnson said. “Why they picked our neighborhood to build everything is beyond me.”
Whatever SpaceX’s spaceport criteria were, or are, residents said the company seems intent on doing whatever it takes to take control of the area and minimize the coming safety risk of launching a 39-story steel rocket full of millions of pounds of propellants.
The anonymous former homeowner said Finlay even recruited a real-estate agent to help one family find a “like” home in another part of Texas. Finlay and JLL have also explicitly discussed how the Cameron County Space Port Development Corp. has the authority to begin an eminent-domain process for a spaceport.
Whatever SpaceX decides to do, though, the company may soon find itself in a bind: Some residents told Business Insider that they no longer answer Finlay’s calls, texts, or emails. In fact, one such villager said when her husband saw Finlay approaching a neighbor’s home in February, her husband essentially fled and hid by going fishing.
The resident said her family had “no interest” in selling to SpaceX — not even for millions of dollars — and added that she was willing to go to court over their home. What’s more, her case has attracted the attention of the Institute for Justice: a libertarian nonprofit that has in past years defended property-rights cases all the way to the US Supreme Court at no cost to clients.
This story is part of a Business Insider series about SpaceX in South Texas called “Last Town Before Mars.”
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This story has been updated.
WATCH: Why SpaceX is trying to buy out a small Texas village