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Florida's once-struggling Space Coast booms from aerospace, defense firms

By
Ray Downs
Elon Musk's SpaceX is one of the aerospace companies in Central Florida bolstering the economy along what locals call the Space Coast. Photo by Joe Marino/UPI
Elon Musk's "SpaceX" is one of the aerospace companies in Central Florida bolstering the economy along what locals call the Space Coast. Photo by Joe Marino/UPI | License Photo

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. Nov. 21 (UPI) -- The economy of Florida's Space Coast is getting a boost from space and defense companies that are bringing back high-paying tech jobs to an area hit hard by the 2008 recession and the 2011 retirement of NASA's space shuttle program.

Hundreds of people came out to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral on Thursday to watch SpaceX launch a Es'hail-2 satellite rocket into space. The crowd consisted of tourists from around the United States and other countries sitting in metal bleachers surrounding a grassy area with dozens of field-tripping school kids in bright, neon-colored t-shirts waiting for the rocket to launch.

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The SpaceX launch went off without a hitch, and the crowd's attention focused on the giant trail of smoke in the Cape Canaveral sky. Moments later, after the rocket disappeared into the clouds, the crowd's attention turned to a large screen set-up next to the bleachers that showed a live camera feed from the rocket as it entered geostationary transfer orbit.

"It's an opportunity for the kids to see the wonders of space and science and endless possibilities," said Natalie Griffin, a parent-chaperon for one of the elementary schools on field trip that day.

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It's also a sign of boom times for a Florida county that had been struggling deeply until just a few years ago.

Recovery post-shuttle

In 2011, NASA retired the space shuttle fleet, resulting in the loss of nearly 10,000 jobs. The economic hemorrhage came at a time when Brevard County, home to Florida's Cape Canaveral area, was still reeling from the 2008 recession.

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When the final shuttle, Atlantis, was retired, unemployment in Brevard County was about 12 percent, compared to the U.S. average of 9.1 percent. All economic indicators showed a significant downturn, including drops in home-building and consumer spending.

However, over the past few years, Brevard County has seen all those downturns reverse.

Between October 2010 and September 2017, 49 new private projects were announced on Florida's Space Coast, according to data from the Space Coast Economic Development Commission. The EDC estimates that total investment came up to $1.68 billion with an economic impact of nearly $2.5 billion, which led to 8,718 new jobs, as well as more than 7,000 retained jobs.

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Although government agencies like NASA gave the Space Coast its moniker, it is largely private space companies and defense companies with lucrative government contracts that have accounted for the current growth.

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"It's not just just the unemployment rate being addressed, but truly a restructuring of a traditional space economy that was tied to infrequent launches," said Lynda Weatherman, CEO of the Space Coast EDC. "Now we have not only more launches, but manufacturing and assembly of launch vehicles, which wasn't done during the 50 years of the space economy in Florida."

Vehicle manufacturing, as well as satellite and missile production, has been carried out by a slew of companies, ranging from American defense giant Lockheed Martin to German aerospace firm RUAG, leading to a more diverse aerospace economy than in the past.

Dale Ketcham, vice president of Government and External Affairs at Space Florida, a public for-profit state agency implemented to attract aerospace and defense projects, said diversifying the area's aerospace economy away from a reliance on government agencies was a "conscientious effort" by state and federal delegations ever since the announcement of the shuttle retirement in 2004.

"Many of us were around here during Apollo and we knew the Atlantis shuttle retiring was gonna hurt a lot -- and it did," Ketcham said. "They're great programs when they're booming, but they're government programs so they come and they go."

Diversification efforts paying off

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In Titusville, Fla., a coastal city of 46,000 people just across the bridge from NASA's Kennedy Space Center, a new apartment complex that entitles its units "launchpads" is under construction. The units are geared toward the influx of young engineers moving into the area to work in the aerospace industry and are run by Red Canyon, an engineering firm that also operates a co-workspace geared toward the same space-oriented clientele it will house in its launchpads.

To underscore that point, the company's motto is "Exploring Other Planets, Improving Our Own."

Not only do Red Canyon's launchpad apartments bring a tech yuppie style of living sensibility to the Space Coast, but they're also one of the first apartment buildings to be constructed in Titusville in approximately 10 years.

"We've had more sub-divisions and more new apartment complexes in the past three years than we've seen in the previous 10 years," said Dana Blickley, Brevard County property appraiser. "There's a direct relationship between aerospace jobs and economic development here. We depend on it. And we found out just how much we depend on it with the retirement of the space shuttle program. That devastated us here."

Blickley said the recovery over the past five years, since the end of the recession, has been strong. There has been 2,139 single-family units built in 2018 -- a 32.9 percent increase from last year and nearly double the amount in 2014, when 1,266 single-family units were built. Between 2014 and 2018, the total taxable value of these units went from about $28 million to $37.7 million.

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Recovery not complete

Although the Space Coast's growth has been boosted by the influx of aerospace jobs, the area's overall economy still hasn't completely recovered form the 2008 recession.

According to EDC data, the average wage in Brevard County increased by 6.9 percent between 2010 and today, which is less than half of the 14.7 percent wage increase across the United States and far lower than the 13.1 percent increase statewide.

GDP in Brevard County has also grown at a slower pace than the the rest of the state since 2012. Brevard has seen a 14.7 GDP increase, while the rest of Florida has averaged a 21.3 percent jump. But Brevard's GDP growth has been on par with the rest of the nation, which has seen a 15.1 percent increase during that same time.

Tax revenue has also grown at a slower pace than the rest of Florida, with Brevard County's taxable sales up 38 percent, compared to 47 percent for the rest of Florida.

Weatherman said there's still room for improvement, but points out the area has mostly recovered by making significant economic changes in just a few years.

"I've been in this business a long time and usually miracles like this take place over a generation," she said.

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With the expected increase in space industry revenue coming to the area, including a big increase in rocket launches, the improvements are expected to continue. SpaceX is planning on increasing its number of launches, Amazon's Blue Origin is getting into the fray and NASA is even considering space tourism.

"We used to have an average of 4.5 launches in a year," Weatherman said. "And in a few years, we'll have 48 launches per year. And in 15 years, we'll have 100 launches a year."

At the Kennedy Space Center on Thursday, after the rocket launched and the crowd began to disperse, Mark Smith, the center's rocket launch emcee, said the crowd in attendance was the largest of the year, in part because it was the first daytime launch in months.

But he expects the crowds will soon get bigger.

"If you think this is a big crowd, wait until we start launching humans again," Smith said.

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