Make us your home page
Instagram

A new era for the Space Coast

TITUSVILLE — Tourists began booking rooms weeks ago, making plans to see what is more than a routine rocket launch from Cape Canaveral.

The next chapter in U.S. space exploration should begin in about a week, when California-based Space Exploration Technologies — SpaceX for short — expects to become the first private company to send a rocket to the International Space Station. Once it perfects its delivery system for cargo, the company will turn its focus to transporting U.S. astronauts.

"We are right now standing at kind of the beginning of a new era in space travel," SpaceX spokeswoman Kirstin Brost Grantham said, "one in which the commercial companies work with NASA to advance space flight."

The SpaceX launch scheduled for May 7 demonstrates the potential for private companies to use Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and nearby Kennedy Space Center for new endeavors.

State leaders say there is no other choice.

Florida has always competed with other states for a chunk of the global space industry. But those efforts became even more important when President George W. Bush announced the end of the space shuttle program.

The total jobs lost in Florida: somewhere between 7,000 and 9,000, depending on who's counting. The majority are in Brevard County, where the aerospace industry accounts for roughly 25 percent of all jobs, according to some estimates.

State and federal government officials, workforce and economic development agencies and local business leaders have spent years preparing for the massive layoff and charting the next era for Florida's space industry.

The moment's nearly here.

The new 'Space Coast'

Lynda Weatherman, president and CEO of the Economic Development Commission of Florida's Space Coast, said the new goal is to recruit a more diverse array of space-related businesses.

"We have been solely, and only, a launch site," she said. "We want to bring more research and development here and more assembly work."

Bush's announcement allowed them time to prepare; there was a seven-year gap between his it and the final shuttle launch. The state has allocated tens of millions of dollars to invest in companies and improve infrastructure with a hope that existing businesses would expand and new ones would be attracted to Florida.

Most of those resources funnel through Enterprise Florida, the business development agency, and Space Florida, a separate entity empowered to invest in infrastructure and carry out other support programs and initiatives that specifically benefit companies in the aerospace industry.

For example, Space Florida took ownership of some of the former space shuttle processing and assembly areas at Kennedy and began marketing to potential tenants. Last fall, Boeing Company announced that it will lease one of those buildings and use it to manufacture, assemble and test a space capsule under development.

Space Florida pledged up to $50 million to convert the space to meet Boeing's needs. In turn, the company said it would add up to 550 jobs in Florida.

"We can do very small to very large," Space Florida president Frank DiBello said. "We can also do some direct investing in companies to help them achieve an objective."

Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll said she is passionate about her role as chairwoman of Space Florida's board. Aerospace and aviation account for 10 percent of the state's economy, Carroll said, and just about every county in the state has at least one company that provides direct support.

"This is an industry that we cannot let falter," Carroll said.

She led a trade mission to Spain and England last fall, where Space Florida formalized partnerships with government and private entities. Those who work alongside Carroll say she sets herself apart by showing a genuine commitment to advocating on behalf of the industry, and it doesn't hurt that Carroll has expertise from a 20-year career in Navy aviation.

"She's been absolutely one of the most effective that we've had for space," said Lisa Rice, president of Brevard Workforce.

Rice's job is to ensure that the effort translates to more people finding work. Her agency tracks the thousands of former shuttle workers who continue to search for jobs. The numbers are encouraging, she said.

Jobs picture better

Brevard's unemployment rate dropped to 9.5 percent in March, the first time it was below 10 percent in 34 months, according to Rice. That's also down from 10.8 percent a year prior.

"That's a psychological thing," Rice said. "There is something about breaking through that 10 percent that makes you feel a whole lot better."

At the same time, Brevard's labor force — the number of people actively seeking work — has also begun to inch higher.

In the years since Bush announced the shuttle program was ending, Brevard Workforce has received millions of dollars in federal and state funding to help identify companies' needs, evaluate workers' skills and help retrain job-seekers for new positions. The Economic Development Commission of Florida's Space Coast also received money to help market the region and recruit businesses.

Rice said the nationwide economic depression worsened the impact of closing the high-profile shuttle program. It also made finding state dollars more challenging. But legislators agreed that the industry was too important not to support.

"If they hadn't done that, I don't think we'd be where we're at today," Rich said.

Perception problem

Yet, challenges remain.

Among them, Florida must fight a nationwide perception that its Space Coast has been economically devastated by the shuttle program layoffs.

It also must face the reality that while some jobs have come back to the area, many more people remain out of work.

"We're sober about it, and it's still a major challenge to us," Weatherman said.

But the next chapter is already evident, Weatherman said, and companies are expanding or moving into Florida. NASA innovation at Kennedy also continues, including the development of a capsule that could eventually send man back to the moon and even to Mars.

That is why Weatherman was particularly bothered by a piece that aired on CBS's 60 Minutes on April 1. It described Brevard County as a broken community devastated and reeling from the shuttle fleet retirement. But the piece didn't tell the upside, Weatherman said.

"The greater story was that this community — all the partners — are making a valiant effort to mitigate the job loss," she said.

Weatherman sent a letter to Scott Pelley, the 60 Minutes correspondent who narrated the report, asking him to return to the region and provide viewers with an update on the scary picture he painted. She hasn't received a reply so far, but she's waiting.

"I feel very strongly in what we've done so far to really address this issue," Weatherman said. "If that's your interpretation, come back in a year and let me show you what the community is doing."

Tia Mitchell can be reached at tmitchell@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

1946

Year aerospace research and testing began in Florida

485

Number of companies in 2011

31,062

Total employees

8.8

Percentage of jobs lost since July 2008 peak

$76,702

Average wages (in 2010)

$41,574

Average wages across all Florida industries

Source: Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, Aviation and Aerospace Industry Labor Market Profile, 2011

A new era for the Space Coast 04/28/12 [Last modified: Saturday, April 28, 2012 4:31am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. In advertising, marketing diversity needs a boost in Tampa Bay, nationally

    Business

    TAMPA — Trimeka Benjamin was focused on a career in broadcast journalism when she entered Bethune-Cookman University.

    From left, Swim Digital marketing owner Trimeka Benjamin discusses the broad lack of diversity in advertising and marketing with 22 Squared copywriter Luke Sokolewicz, University of Tampa advertising/PR professor Jennifer Whelihan, Rumbo creative director George Zwierko and Nancy Vaughn of the White Book Agency. The group recently met at The Bunker in Ybor City.
  2. Tampa Club president seeks assessment fee from members

    News

    TAMPA — The president of the Tampa Club said he asked members last month to pay an additional assessment fee to provide "additional revenue." However, Ron Licata said Friday that the downtown business group is not in a dire financial situation.

    Ron Licata, president of the Tampa Club in downtown Tampa. [Tampa Club]
  3. Under Republican health care bill, Florida must make up $7.5 billion

    Markets

    If a Senate bill called the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017 becomes law, Florida's government would need to make up about $7.5 billion to maintain its current health care system. The bill, which is one of the Republican Party's long-promised answers to the Affordable Care Act imposes a cap on funding per enrollee …

    Florida would need to cover $7.5 billion to keep its health care program under the Republican-proposed Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017.  [Times file photo]
  4. Amid U.S. real estate buying binge by foreign investors, Florida remains first choice

    Real Estate

    Foreign investment in U.S. residential real estate recently skyrocketed to a new high with nearly half of all foreign sales happening in Florida, California and Texas.

    A National Association of Realtors annual survey found record volume and activity by foreign buyers of U.S. real estate. Florida had the highest foreign investment activity, followed by California and Texas. [National Association of Realtors]
  5. Trigaux: Tampa Bay health care leaders wary of getting too far ahead in disruptive times

    Business

    Are attempts to repeal Obamacare dead for the foreseeable future? Might the Affordable Care Act (ACA), now in dire limbo, be revived? Will Medicaid coverage for the most in need be gutted? Can Republicans now in charge of the White House, Senate and House ever agree to deliver a substitute health care plan that people …

    Natalia Ricabal of Lutz, 12 years old, joined other pediatric cancer patients in Washington in July to urge Congress to protect Medicaid coverage that helped patients like Ricabal fight cancer. She was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma in 2013 and has undergone extensive treatments at BayCare's St. Joseph's Children's Hospital in Tampa. [Courtesy of BayCare]