By Joe Crews
For Hometown News
Although it was not billed as an action item, the Volusia County Council voted last week to have staff draft a resolution of support for a proposed spaceport in the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge south of Oak Hill.
The council voted 5-2 to draft the resolution that will be considered at a May meeting. Council members Pat Patterson and Pat Northey opposed the decision.
The council took the vote near the end of a 90-minute session that started with a lengthy presentation by the head of Space Florida, about a dozen public comments, a majority of which were from environmentalists opposed to the location of the proposed launch facility and discussion among the council members.
Frank DiBello, president and chief executive of Space Florida, the public-private agency that is tasked with promoting the state as a viable player in the commercial space industry, said the so-called Shiloh site was the most suitable location for a 150-acre launch complex.
"We did an exhaustive search along the entire east coast of Florida, and decided Shiloh is the best and only place that's suitable," Mr. DiBello told the council.
He said when paired with the nearby Kennedy Space Center, the Shiloh site would also increase the number of customers at KSC. The Shiloh site also would improve the U.S.'s competitiveness in the space-transportation industry, add jobs in the area from Volusia County to Orlando to Brevard County, and extend 50 years of good stewardship of the land by the Department of Defense and NASA.
Citing 2013 estimates from the Florida State University Center for Economic Forecasting and Analysis, Mr. DiBello said the aerospace industry has a major economic impact on the state, with sales and revenues north of $17 billion. The aerospace industry has more than 132,000 employees working at more than 11,600 companies in the state.
Florida is not alone in trying to set up commercial launch facilities, he said, with 17 other locations around the U.S. also vying to become players in the industry.
Mr. DiBello said Space Florida is planning to begin next month on a yearlong environmental impact study on the Shiloh site, which is still under NASA's control.
"We want to be able to work with the county staff in the environmental impact study," he said.
But a number of speakers expressed concerns about the Shiloh site. Typical was Jake Sachs of New Smyrna Beach.
"We only have one Earth and we should protect it and not cannibalize it," Mr. Sachs said. "If there's a disaster, we'll lose more than jobs."
Charles Lee of Audubon Florida said NASA has to honor a contract with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to manage that portion of the refuge.
But Jim Cameron of the Daytona Regional Chamber of Commerce spoke in favor of the proposal, noting the area was losing space business to other communities.
"This is an opportunity we haven't had come to this county in a long time," Mr. Cameron said. "This is an emerging market and we need to take advantage of it."
Other speakers said Space Florida shouldn't be building a launch facility for private companies.
Space Florida officials contend security measures and other restrictions at Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station would hamper a private company's operations.
Councilman Josh Wagner, who made the motion to draw up the resolution, said he didn't know if the Shiloh site was the best choice, but the council needed to determine what it could do to welcome businesses like this.
"We have to support projects like this," he said.
Councilwoman Deb Denys, whose district includes the proposed site, agreed as she seconded his motion.
"Volusia County has a stellar record of protecting the environment," she said. "Aerospace means jobs for everybody, if not there, then somewhere else. ... This is a tremendous opportunity."
Councilwoman Northey said the problem wasn't the project itself.
"I didn't hear anyone say we shouldn't pursue the space industry," she said. "But maybe it should be in a different place."
Councilman Patterson voted against the motion because it wasn't on the meeting's agenda.
"I don't think it's right to come in for a presentation and end up voting for a resolution," he said.