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Brevard’s fortunes no longer hinge just on space industry

Forty years ago, the destruction of a manned spacecraft and all of its astronauts might’ve wielded a devastating blow to Brevard County’s prospects. But as the Space Coast continues to grow and diversify, its fortunes are becoming less dependent on NASA’s gambits. 

No doubt, the space agency’s recent robotic successes on Mars and President Bush’s moon-Mars initiative for the next few decades was heartening news, since Kennedy Space Center’s position in off-world exploration appears secure. But as a measure of how well the area can sustain a blow, less than a year after the February 2003 re-entry disaster of space shuttle Columbia, Brevard County’s unemployment rate fell to 4.7 percent. That was the lowest jobless tally since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Counting more than 495,000 residents, Brevard’s population has quadrupled since President Kennedy announced his goal of leaving American footprints on the moon. People are moving here for myriad reasons, not the least of which is to escape urban congestion. No mystery there — with 72 miles of coastline and an average temperature of 71.7 degrees, Brevard affords appreciably more elbow room than Tampa Bay or South Florida. But it won’t last long. 

Recording a 19 percent growth rate during the 1990s, Brevard saw the value of new homes ring the $1billion bell last year. Average resale values during the past several years hover around 20 percent. But here along the Indian River Lagoon, a fragile ecosystem is enduring growing pains as well.

Last year, a water supply assessment conducted by the St. Johns River Water Management District concluded that groundwater sources will be at risk for saltwater contamination in 20 years at current levels of consumption. And that’s bad news, because there appears to be no end in sight for Brevard’s growth rates. 

Astronaut Demographers profile the average worker here as a 41-year-old white female, and there’s only an 8 percent chance she’ll have a government job. The median household income here is more than $35,000. Politically, Brevard is a bastion of conservatism. Its legislative and congressional delegations are Republican, and nearly 50,000 registered voters are independents. 

The Space Coast is getting more diverse. More than 83 percent of its residents are listed as non-Hispanic whites, but between 2000 and 2002, its minority population grew at twice the rate of whites. Leading the way was the 12.4 percent growth rate of Hispanics, who now number nearly 25,000. Blacks count about 9 percent of the population. Palm Bay is Brevard’s largest city with 80,000 residents, and it reflects some of the county’s greatest diversity. 

Brevard also is growing older. The biggest population drop during the last Census period — 27 percent — occurred in 25- to 34-year-olds, the largest such decline among Florida’s 67 counties. One in four Brevardians are older than 60. Significantly, at last count, there were just 3,000 nursing-home beds available. 

If you’re interested in history, you’ll be interested to know that Brevard County is named for Brig. Gen. Theodore W. Brevard, who commanded the Florida Brigade at Appomattox. Contrary to popular lore, Ponce de Leon most likely came ashore on Melbourne Beach in 1513, not St. Augustine. The oldest human brains ever recovered — 8,000 years old — were pickled in a swamp in Titusville. The native Indians, the Ais, were annihilated by European plagues in the 16th century. 

Of course, Brevard’s modern era is easily traced to the space age and the NASA rockets of the 1950s. At the height of the Apollo era in 1968, more than one of every five residents worked for the space program. Those days are memorialized by theme park operator Delaware North at KSC Visitor Complex, which counts millions of tourists each year. Clearly, Brevard’s beaches aren’t the main draw. 

Lagging behind only Miami as the nation’s busiest cruise-ship terminal, Port Canaveral added a whopper to its inventory last year — Royal Caribbean’s Mariner of the Seas. This one holds 3,800 passengers, who can do anything from miniature golf to rock climbing in transit. The Port now berths eight multi-day cruise ships and two gambling excursion ships. 

It’s a scene America’s first astronauts might’ve considered unearthly in 1961.

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