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Friday May 11, 2012

The lights are on but nobody's home...

A scientific ghost town in the heart of south-eastern New Mexico oil and gas country will hum with the latest next-generation technology - but no people.

An artist's view of the ghost town to be developed in New Mexico to help researchers test anything from intelligent traffic systems to self-flushing toilets.

A $1 billion (R7.9bn) city without residents will be developed in Lea County near Hobbs to help researchers test everything from intelligent traffic systems and next-generation wireless networks to automated washing machines and self-flushing toilets.

Hobbs mayor Sam Cobb said the unique research facility that looked like an empty city would be a key for diversifying the economy of the nearby community, which after the oil bust of the 1980s saw bumper stickers asking the last person to leave to turn out the lights.

"It brings so many great opportunities and puts us on a world stage," Cobb said before the announcement.

Pegasus Holdings and its New Mexico subsidiary, CITE Development, said Hobbs and Lea County had beaten Las Cruces for the Center for Innovation, Technology and Testing.

The CITE project is being billed as a first-of-its-kind smart city, or ghost town of sorts, that will be developed on about 39km2 of land west of Hobbs.

Bob Brumley, senior managing director of Pegasus Holdings, said the town would be modelled after the real city of Rock Hill, South Carolina, complete with highways, houses and commercial buildings, old and new. No one will live there, although they could, because houses will include all the necessities, like appliances and plumbing.

The point of the town is to enable researchers to test new technologies on existing infrastructure without interfering in everyday life.

For instance, while some researchers will be testing smart technologies on old grids, others might be using the streets to test self-driving cars. "The only thing we won't be doing is destructive testing, blowing things up - I hope," said Brumley.

Not far from the Texas border, Hobbs has seen new growth in recent years, but local leaders have been pushing to expand the area's reputation to include economic development ventures beyond the staple of oil and gas.

The investors developing CITE were looking for open spaces. Brumley said his group had scoured the country for potential sites, "but we kept coming back to New Mexico. New Mexico is unique in so many ways".

One big plus for New Mexico was its federal research facilities like White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico and Los Alamos and Sandia national labs.

Governor Susana Martinez joined officials in announcing final site selection for the project, which she hailed as "one of the most unique and innovative" economic development projects the state had seen.

She noted that no tax breaks had been given for the development. "The only thing they have asked for is guidance," she said.

Brumley said it was planned to break ground on the town by June 30. The initial development cost is estimated at $400 million, although he estimated the overall investment in the project to top $1bn.

The project is expected to create 350 permanent jobs and about 3 500 indirect jobs in its design, development, construction and ongoing operational phases.

Hobbs, a community of about 43 000 people, currently has two non-stop flights from Houston each day and is working on getting a daily service to Albuquerque and Denver.

The mayor said discussions for the new flights had only just started, but having the research centre could bolster efforts to connect Hobbs to more cities.


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