Ready for Takeoff
When the shuttle Columbia broke apart during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003, and NASA subsequently grounded the rest of the shuttle fleet, economic development officials in the region mourned the loss of the seven astronauts and then braced for an economic fallout.
But a year later, the Space Coast's economy is robust. The Kennedy Space Center's workforce of 11,500 civil service and contract employees is roughly the same size it was before the accident, and NASA continues to work on commercial satellite launches as it upgrades the remaining three shuttles.
While somewhat reassured, area business executives say they can't take anything for granted. "There's been a lot of concern over rumors the space shuttle program will go away," says Lee Bohlmann, president of the Melbourne-Palm Bay Area Chamber of Commerce.
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said in mid-February that NASA is planning for the next shuttle launch in March 2005.
In the meantime, economic development officials say they don't intend to be surprised if NASA changes course. "Whatever the outcome, we're planning," says Lynda L. Weatherman, president and CEO of the Economic Development Commission of Florida's Space Coast. "If it's not the shuttle, maybe it will be the next generation, the orbital space plane."
Key Trend: Volusia County's five-year, $50-million economic development strategy targets primarily healthcare and medical-products companies. As part of the plan, the county is running ads touting itself in Boston and other New England states. Last year, an Oklahoma company called For Health Technologies relocated to Volusia County, bringing with it 50 jobs that pay in excess of $50,000 a year, says Richard Michael, director of the Volusia County Department of Economic Development. ... Elsewhere, the Daytona News-Journal has contributed $13 million for the renovation of the city's center for the performing arts, which will be renamed after the daily newspaper. A major expansion of the Daytona Beach Ocean Center will propel the facility from the state's 23rd-largest convention center to the fifth.
Business to Watch: Vintage Props and Jets, a New Smyrna Beach-based commuter and charter air service, has been growing at a 20% clip for the past several years. The company's eight-plane fleet flies daily scheduled service from Daytona Beach, New Smyrna Beach, Melbourne and Orlando to the Bahamas. "We're not the cheapest, but we provide excellent service," says company founder and President Tom Crevasse.
Person to Watch: Yvonne Scarlett-Golden, 77, a retired teacher and principal, was elected the first black mayor of Daytona Beach. She had been a city commissioner and had the backing of many business leaders. As mayor, Scarlett-Golden, perhaps reflecting her years in the classroom, operates with a no-nonsense approach, say observers.
Major Trend: Like much of the rest of the Space Coast, the Melbourne area's new-home construction is at record levels. New arrivals are coming from south Florida and Orlando, as well as new hires at Harris Corp. and the soon-to-be-opened 500-employee Washington Mutual Home Loans service center. Elsewhere, Melbourne International Airport is undergoing a $3.5-million upgrade to handle new European charter flights expected to arrive in November. One big challenge for the area: School funding. Last year, Brevard County voters rejected a 1-cent sales tax to pay for new schools needed to accommodate the influx of young families.
Businesses to Watch: Liberty Aerospace is the first company in about 30 years to receive FAA certification for a new two-seat general aviation aircraft. Liberty, which relocated to Melbourne from Colorado 1 1/2 years ago, expects to produce about 250 of its $160,000 Liberty XL2 planes next year. "We think the aviation public is ready for a new, well-performing plane," says CEO Anthony Tiarks. ... Semiconductor Intersil Corp. says it has been experiencing faster revenue growth than the industry over the past two years. A former business division of Harris Corp., the publicly traded Intersil sold off its wireless communications business to focus on its analog semiconductor products. Last year the company rolled out more than 300 new products. Intersil employs 1,100 at its Palm Bay facility. The company expects to continue hiring this year, especially design engineers, says spokesman John Allen.
Major Trend: Residential real estate development continues to be the big story in this north Brevard County city. Examples abound: From waterfront condos and patio homes to large-scale developments such as the 900-acre Willow Creek residential and commercial project. The city's Space Coast Regional Airport also is undergoing an expansion with the addition of a terminal for corporate jets. "People are now finding our community, and we have a lot of developable property," says Marcia Gaedcke, president of the Titusville Area Chamber of Commerce.
Business to Watch: Sales of GeoSystems' patented portable lightweight lift are taking off as the nation beefs up its security. The lifts, used to hoist infrared cameras and sensors, are being purchased by airports and the U.S. Border Patrol. Founded by former Lockheed Martin engineer George Woodruff, the company also is marketing a portable light system that resembles neon but is sturdier and requires less power.
Person to Watch: Since moving into the former McDonnell-Douglas Tomahawk missile plant last year, C. Reed Knight Jr.'s privately held Knight Enterprises continues to impress state and local economic development officials. The company has snared a number of contracts to make state-of-the-art weapons for U.S. and allied special forces.
Person to Watch: Last year, 630 people moved to this fast-growing city each month. Richard Kelton was hired four years ago as city manager. The former chief financial officer of Volusia County is overseeing the management of the growth and the creation of a new City Hall, expected to be built in about four years. Handling a growing anti-growth sentiment will be one of his chores. "You get the opportunity to start a new city once in a lifetime," Kelton says.
Businesses to Watch: With its population now approaching the 50,000 mark, Palm Coast will be popping up on more big retailers' radar screens, says City Manager Richard Kelton. Beall's and Home Depot opened new stores this year. Expect others to follow.
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