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Small Businesses Ponder Life After the Space Shuttle

Small Businesses Ponder Life After the Space Shuttle Credit: Dreamstime.com

Rusty's has been a Cape Canaveral fixture for 20 years, and Rusty Fisher's family has operated area restaurants for nearly six decades, living through the space program's temporary suspensions following the losses of the Challenger and Columbia shuttles  in 1986 and 2003 respectively.

"We thought that was going to kill us, but it didn't," Fisher said.

"We are going to bounce back from this, too," he said, referring to the end of the Space Shuttle program.

Planning for change

While it's disappointing to know his future crowds might not match the number that visited his restaurant for the final launch this month, Fisher said there are other events during the year that will draw plenty of customers to Rusty's doors.

"We had a record week, but we did just as well for our July Fourth party," Fisher said. "The port is becoming the place to be."

David Spain, who's owned the Comfort Inn and Suites in Cocoa Beach since the days of the 1970s Apollo missions, is similarly optimistic and said the end of the space shuttle program doesn't mean certain doom for area businesses that rely on tourism to support their bottom line.

"We have been here before," Spain told BusinessNewsDaily, referring to the lull in activity between the Apollo and shuttle missions. "This time, though, we are better prepared than we were."

In the years since the shuttle program began, the entire area around Cape Canaveral has expanded, and proved to businesses that not all their profits depend on the space program.

The first Port Canaveral cruise terminal opened in 1982. Today, it ranks as the world’s second-busiest cruise port, with nearly 5 million cruise passengers visiting the area every year.

"We have the cruise industry, which we did not have before," Spain said.  "Gambling boats are going to pick up again also, and there could be a thousand people a day on those trips."

According to the Canaveral Port Authority, the Port brings in $1.1 billion in revenue annually for businesses that provide services there. That won't make up for the loss of the shuttles, but Spain said every little bit helps.

"We are able to pick up a little (business) here and pick up a little there," he said.

Finding new customers

Craig Carroll, owner of Cocoa Beach's Ron Jon Surf School, is expecting a slight drop in business without the launches to rely on, but doesn't think it will be too upsetting to his bottom line.

"We do a lot of tourist (business) and a fair amount of local business that is not driven by shuttle launches, which should persist without impact," Carroll said. "Keep in mind that we are the closest beach to Walt Disney World in Orlando , and we get a lot of tourists that want to escape Disney for a day or two."

While a lot of businesses are concerned about the projected drop in tourism, another sector of the community is worried about a decline in actual residents after NASA lays off an estimated 9,000 shuttle workers later this year.

Bill Augustine, manger at Dilorenzo's Pizza and Subs in Cape Canaveral, said losing those customers is really going to hurt.

"For us, it is already slower than usual, and we rely mostly on locals, with 90 percent of our business being takeout and delivery," Augustine said.

Spain agreed the loss of NASA employees likely will hurt business; their science colleagues from across the country who spend time in Cape Canaveral in the months leading up to a launch also will be missed.

"They are making multiple trips to the Cape," Spain said. "It is that business that goes away that is going to be devastating."

Yet he also believes the changes will force the area to build a business model that doesn't revolve around the launch, which will actually help local businesses in the long run.

"I think we are in for a couple of slow years, but in the long run we will have more diverse (interests)," Spain said. "We won't have all our eggs in one basket."

In addition to the burgeoning cruise industry, Spain also thinks the privatization of space exploration through companies like SpaceX will be a boon to the community. SpaceX already has 20 rocket launches scheduled through 2015 under a contract with NASA, which will bring a number of additional people to the area.

"I think things are a lot more positive today then they were at the end of Apollo," Spain said. "Realistically, there is no reason for this area not to explode."

Chad  Brooks
Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.