Positioning Itself for the Wave of the Future

By Carl Kotala

What’s in a name? If you’re the city of Cocoa Beach … plenty.

From the space program to the TV show “I Dream of Jeannie,” having six miles of incredible beachfront, and being the hometown of the most famous surfing champion in the world Kelly Slater, Cocoa Beach is a city known throughout the country. Tell somebody in California you live in Brevard County and they may ask, “Where is that?” Answer them, “You know, Cocoa Beach,” and you’re likely to get an, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard of that place.”

That name recognition, coupled with being the closest beach location to Orlando and centrally located to Port Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center has made Cocoa Beach the top tourist destination in the county. “Not to say that other areas of the county aren’t important, and of course we put a lot of effort into them, but Cocoa Beach probably represents 48-49 percent of all tourism business in the county,” said Rob Varley, executive director of Florida’s Space Coast of Tourism. “Our tourism industry generates $2.8 billion a year in direct and indirect spending. Cocoa Beach represents nearly half of that.”

Set Back, But Not Slowing Down 

Like any city located near Kennedy Space Center, the end of the shuttle program and a sharp downturn in the economy have had an impact on Cocoa Beach businesses. But comparatively speaking, that impact has not been as harsh as some might have projected.

Christy Galzerano, general manager of the DoubleTree Oceanfront Hotel, and former chairman of the board for the Cocoa Beach Regional Chamber of Commerce, said business has been better than expected. “I think average chambers across the country are dropping 20 percent or more,” Galzerano said. “We haven’t had that. I would say I’m cautiously optimistic. I don’t feel as though the shuttle ending has affected us as badly as what was projected. Hotel wise, projections for the year are strong.”

While Cocoa Beach is known more for its mom-and-pop operations than big chain businesses, it is home to two of the biggest surf shops in the world – Cocoa Beach Surf Company and Ron Jon Surf Shop.

Heather Lewis, marketing director for Ron Jon, wrote in an email that the great beaches and surf, plus its close proximity to the Orlando market makes Cocoa Beach the perfect place to serve as the headquarters for a business that has expanded operations to places like Cozumel, Grand Turk, Las Vegas and even four airport locations, including one at JFK International in New York. The economy may be down, but Ron Jon is still flourishing.

“Our business has been impacted just as everyone was over the last two years,” Lewis wrote. “However our focus on customer service and great new
products really mitigated our loss. Our stores are also the only place to buy the Ron Jon brand.”

How to Attract?  

As much as Cocoa Beach contributes to Brevard’s economy, measuring the potential it still has for growth would require an extra-long ladder and one heck of a long tape measure. Because while it may be the county’s tourism leader, there is still plenty of work that can be done that can bring in new business that would not only increase the city’s popularity among tourists, but also make it a nicer place to live for the 11,600 or so year long residents.

Varley cited the number of tourists who come to Port Canaveral to board cruise ships but choose to stay in Orlando and take a bus to the port rather than spend more of their time and money in Brevard County. “That’s low-hanging fruit,” Varley explained. “We’re going to grab that business. We’re already working on it, creating some transportation opportunities … Why stay over there on the concrete, when you can be here on the beach starting your vacation a day early?”

Tony Sasso, a former Cocoa Beach Commission member and state representative, was named executive director of Keep Brevard Beautiful in January. He’s been working with the Florida Department of Transportation on a project that would spruce up the A1A corridor from Port Canaveral down to Patrick Air Force Base. “It’s not just getting people from A to B, it’s everything that happens between A and B,” Sasso said. “In other words, it’s not a street-widening project. It’s more about a bicycle/pedestrian boulevard with
landscaping and lighting and a roadway that actually functions better for residents, tourists and businesses.”

Redevelopment Plans

Upgrading the A1A corridor is just a small piece of what could help revitalize parts of Cocoa Beach, while still maintaining the kind of quirkiness that the locals have come to love. The city is in the midst of getting approval for a Community Redevelopment Authority (CRA) and Vision Plan that will help regenerate
business activity in the downtown area.

“It is sort of the historical downtown, but it has gotten a little old,” Mayor Skip Beeler said. “Our plan is to basically try to set up the infrastructure and the zoning to allow people to come in and build buildings, or improve the buildings that are there, and bring businesses in. I think because we do have the name, and we do have a couple of million visitors coming through here a year; there’s a lot of opportunity.”

A big portion of the plan calls for mixed use development, which would essentially allow for commercial and residential development on the same property. Although the issue brought up much debate in the community, it passed a November election with 61 percent of the vote.

Also included in the overall improvement plan is a change from a zone-based code, to a form-based code, which would allow developers to build more aesthetically pleasing structures.

Tom Hermansen, a Cocoa Beach resident, is a partner in Ocean Partners Limited, which owns and operates the Hampton Inn and the Marriott Courtyard in Cocoa Beach and the Residence Inn in Cape Canaveral. He is also a board member of the Cocoa Beach Area Merchants Association, which wants to make sure the voice of the business community is not only unified, but heard more often in respect to what the city is planning with its CRA.

When mixed use became a ballot issue, Hermansen went door-to-door to help push for its approval and heard from a number of people who own property in the downtown area. “I actually spoke to a number of business owners who said if this mixed-use (plan) gets passed and there’s a vision plan put in place with a code-based form that I can understand and read, then I have money to invest in this property,” Hermansen said. “That was really encouraging to hear.”

A Center for Space Coast Living

While there is no true timetable for all the improvements to take place – some could be seen in a year or two, but it could be 20-30 years for the whole plan to play itself out – the idea itself is an exciting one.

Anthony Caravella, the city’s Director of Development Services, referred to it as a resurgence of prosperity. “We’re just trying to reclaim downtown Cocoa Beach as the center of Space Coast living – the place to be, the place to go, the place to be seen,” he said. “A lot of the components of a vibrant downtown community is going to rely upon additional businesses, additional uses above and beyond the restaurants and bars. It would require retail uses – make it an attraction unto itself rather than just a place to go have a drink after the beach.”

Because the mixed use plan was such a hot-button topic in the city leading up to the election, one thing is for sure: the improvement project will have a lot of eyes on it. If it works, it could make Cocoa Beach an even bigger destination.

“I think most of us that were either on the fence, or just a little over one way or the other, are now so engaged, we’re going to stay engaged … to make sure it works the way it’s supposed to work,” Sasso said. “They’re not going to turn it into Delray Beach or Daytona Beach. They’re going to turn it into that cool, eclectic Cocoa Beach, which is what we are. All you have to do is walk or drive around Cocoa Beach and (see) it’s an eclectic community. And we like that. We like being a little bit different. That’s our uniqueness here.”