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A new era for the Space Coast

Published Apr. 28, 2012

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.

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"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.


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