Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Business

New frontier for Space Coast jobs

Brevard County's unemployment rate rose above 11 percent when NASA's space shuttle program ended in 2011. Now it sits at 7 percent, and Gov. Rick Scott has millions in tax incentives on the line to take the number even lower.

Things are better on the Space Coast, and getting better still.

But in Scott's zealous quest to find more private-sector jobs, the CEO-turned-governor sometimes relies on federal and state tax money to do the heavy lifting, according to a Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald review of 342 jobs incentive deals crafted since Scott took office.

The trend is particularly acute in Brevard, which leans on NASA and the federal contracts it could bring.

Boeing, which Scott offered nearly $7 million in exchange for 550 well-paying jobs, is expanding in Florida to team with NASA to build the successor to the space shuttle. A federal contract would cover much of Boeing's expansion costs.

A start-up company called Rocket Crafters is considering a similar plan, though it intends to focus on the private sector. It has promised 1,500 jobs and $72 million in investment in Titusville to develop new space launch technology.

In exchange, Scott offered about $7 million.

Today, nearly 18 months after the state and Rocket Crafters signed their deal, there is little to show for it.

Eric Witcher, the company's vice president of corporate operations, said the company is still trying to get financing and has abandoned plans to create a rocket that can transport cargo and humans into space.

The company has two employees in Florida, not 1,500.

"We may or may not be in over our heads," he said.

Officials in Brevard say they seek out employers who are less reliant on federal contracts, so that the area isn't prone to booms and busts depending on the leadership in Washington or the priorities of one administration over another.

Frank DiBello, who runs a public-private partnership to help promote the Space Coast, says a majority of the area's new jobs are totally private.

"You're seeing a whole host of new companies coming into the market, and we're working very hard to attract them to Florida," said DiBello of Space Florida.

Overall, Scott has pledged nearly $53 million to lure 6,100 jobs to Brevard County, more than any other county in Florida, according to the Times and Herald review.

But the state's database shows that not one new job has been verified.

Embraer selected Melbourne to build its Phenom and Legacy private jets and open an engineering and technology center. The projects could yield over 1,000 jobs, though many details remain shrouded behind a confidentiality agreement.

A few hours north in Jacksonville, Embraer — thanks to a federal contract — opened a new facility to assemble Air Force aircraft. Embraer already has hired 39 new employees there.

Lynda Weatherman, president and CEO of the Economic Development Commission of the Space Coast, said the Space Coast is evolving.

Companies are attracted to the area because of the skilled workforce left behind with the shuttles' departure, the location, the climate and friendly business policies. The incentives help seal the deal, she said.

Contact Tia Mitchell at [email protected]

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