Where the City is Headed After the Shuttle

Titusville residents have long been looking to the east, wondering if another devastating storm – i.e. an economic storm – is coming from the direction of Kennedy Space Center. Many remember 1973-1975 and the impact of the end of the Apollo program, when 10,000 KSC space workers were laid off, representing one-in-10 of all workers in Brevard County. They worry about expected layoffs as the Space Shuttle program comes to an end and wonder if North Brevard will suffer a similar fate in 2011.

Using that same analogy, there was a long-held belief, prior to the hurricanes of 2004, that Brevard County would always be spared a direct hit. Economically speaking, Titusville was the only area of the county impacted directly by the loss of a major employer or program, and the experience after Apollo ended made North Brevard residents increasingly uneasy as the Space Shuttle program winded down.

While the parallels are in many ways uncanny, Titusville leaders have been working on the transition for years and believe that impact will be not as great and that the community will bounce back much quicker, with or without a follow-on space program.

Bracing For Impact

Among them is District 1 County Commissioner Robin Fisher, who is bucking the trend toward doom and gloom and is reinvesting in Titusville as proof. “No doubt about it, there are concerns. I try to tell people the way I look at it now is the way you build up for a hurricane . . . the storm is coming and you’re going to get hit. There’s a lot of speculation right now on how strong that storm will be. The real question is how long it will take us to rebound once the storm passes. The eye is coming, that much is pretty clear . . . the eye is coming,” Fisher said.

“Most of the job losses – 3,500 workers or 35 to 45 percent of the expected 8,000 layoffs – will be in District 1, from SR 528 north,” he added. “But that alone is no reason to roll up Titusville’s sidewalks as it has been described happened after Apollo,” Fisher emphasized. “I think we’ll weather the storm because we’re different than we were when Apollo ended. The county is twice as big now and is a lot more diverse.’’

Stressing the differences between past and present is the Economic Development Commission of Florida’s Space Coast, which has come up with a way to put a positive spin on the transition. “The flux in the space program and ensuing job layoffs will trigger negative national media attention. By developing a proactive media response, this attention provides the Space Coast with a unique opportunity to highlight our competitive advantages and showcase the diversity of our economy,” according to the EDC.

Different Day, Different Response

When Apollo ended in 1975, 10,000 people left the area out of a population of 230,000. The current population is now about 536,000, statistics show. The EDC “has been committed to mitigating the employment gap resulting from the transition and continues to focus its efforts on a three-pronged approach: recruitment and expansion; economic diversification; and encouraging entrepreneurship.”

“Yes I expect we’ll lose some (population), but how much, that’s a tough one,” Fisher said. “There are a lot of them [KSC workers] that are of retirement age and have strong ties to North Brevard.”

The Apollo layoffs are still a vivid memory for Laurilee Thompson, owner of Dixie Crossroads Seafood Restaurant, who now serves as chairman of the Brevard County Tourism Development Council. “Back then, it seemed like every other house had a ‘For Sale’ sign on it,” she recalls. The biggest difference now, she says, is the advanced planning that has gone into the transition.

“Even four years ago, we were already getting community leaders together and saying, ‘This is coming and we don’t want to get caught like we got caught in 1973’,” Thompson commented. “And, with that collective effort, the future will have layoffs, but should not be a repeat of what we saw at the end of Apollo.”

“It’s not going be an immediate fix; I understand that. It’s not going to happen tomorrow. It’s not going to be the five-year gap, but it’s not going to happen fast enough to save some of the jobs we’re losing next year. But it’s not going to be as bad as we thought it was going to be four years ago,” Thompson said.

Facing Reality with Optimism

Parrish Medical Center also has made changes in anticipation of the layoffs, said PMC board of directors chairman J.J. Parrish. “PMC is all about planning and getting out in front of things before they happen. I kind of look at this like a financial or economic storm on the horizon. We’ve boarded up and done all the preparations that we can possibly do to ride it through. We’re financially strong enough to be able to cover that gap,” he said. “And a big part of a positive future is public perception,” he added.

“Unfortunately, some of our citizens have become some of our own worst enemies. It’s easy for somebody to go negative and have them start talking about what it was like from their own personal experience with Apollo, which scares the person they’re talking to whom might have been thinking about opening up a business in Titusville,” Parrish said.

“Space workers have long needed to face the inevitable reality of life without the Shuttle,” he emphasized. “Many of them may be thinking that at the last minute, the Cat 5 (hurricane) that’s coming is going to turn to the north, if they just stay the course. The fear is there, and will continue to be there, until it’s done.”

With that reality in mind, all agree that leaders – and residents – should stress the positives that remain: a talented workforce, affordable housing, good schools, proximity to Melbourne and Orlando, and natural areas like Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

“There has to be a conscious effort. Right now we need to get as many arrows in our quiver as we can. We need to assemble all the tools. I think the leadership in this community has what it takes to ride out the storm, but it will take a tremendous amount of energy and total dedication,” Parrish concludes.

A United Front for the Future

Thompson believes the future will be even brighter than the past with the development of commercial space and other non-space industries. “We’re going to bring energy and young professionals into the community. I’m hopeful because of all the really exciting things that are happening in our community,” she said.

Titusville Area Chamber of Commerce president Marcia Gaedcke grew up on the Space Coast as the daughter of a space worker. “Losing the Shuttle is like losing a member of your family and we’ll go through the stages of grief including denial, anger and acceptance. We’re all getting behind the EDC. It doesn’t help us to fragment at a time like this,” she said.

The change to a “digital society” should help keep laid off space workers in the area,” she said. “You don’t have to have a brick and mortar business anymore to work.”

Added Parrish Medical Center CEO and President George Mikitarian: “North Brevard will have some significant challenges ahead however this community has experienced challenging economic times before and has rebounded. Believing that from adversity springs hope, innovation and opportunity, North Brevard is well-positioned to thrive post-shuttle geographically and with its ability to leverage its environmental assets and diversify its business base to expand into such industries as renewable energy, emerging technologies and others.”

And drawing from that experience overcoming economic adversity, Titusville can realistically position itself, with its environmental attributes and talented and skilled workforce, to create its own new reality of the future, one perhaps not as dependent on NASA and a follow-on space program based at Kennedy Space Center.

Such a future is not solely based on spin or perception that there is a brighter day yet to come. The world focused its gaze on Titusville during the Moon Race, watching as each successive rocket program built confidence that the impossible could be achieved with the Apollo program.

The goal of putting a man on the Moon was achieved, and the Apollo program and its workers eventually went away, but there was a more important lesson learned that can be applied to life after the Shuttle: the spirit and will of the people of North Brevard would not be defeated by the loss of the Apollo program, the layoffs, or the aftermath.

Now, with new challenges and layoffs ahead, there is no reason to think the outcome after the end of the Space Shuttle will be worse than what has already been overcome and survived.

Fisher is putting his money where his mouth is when it comes to the future of Titusville by renovating a vacant property in spite of the looming layoffs. “I do have faith that we’ll be fine, we’ll get through it. I’m very hopeful. Nothing is ever as good as you think it is, or as bad as you think it is. Maybe we’ll find out that not having the Shuttle Program will be good for us,” he maintained.

Major Employers – North Brevard County

  • United Space Alliance
  • NASA/Kennedy Space Center contractors
  • Boeing Company, The
  • Parrish Medical Center
  • Health First, Inc.
  • Brevard Community College
  • KSC Visitor Complex/Delaware North Parks Services
  • Brevard County Schools
  • Brevard County Government

My, How We’ve Grown
Historical U.S. Census Counts for Brevard County

  • 1930…..13,283
  • 1940…..16,142
  • 1950…..23,653
  • 1960…..111,435
  • 1970…..230,006
  • 1980…..272,959
  • 1990…..398,978
  • 2000…..476,230
  • 2009 estimate …… 536,357

Source: Research Program Services, Bureau of Economic and Business Research, University of Florida