WASHINGTON — It’s been a rocky few years for the Space Coast district represented by U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge — starting with NASA’s decision to retire the space shuttle in 2011.
The end of the 30-year program led to thousands of job losses at Kennedy Space Center. The beachfront region still is trying to recover from the economic body blow.
As Posey begins his third term, he said his primary goal is reducing local unemployment, a trauma he knows well after losing his own job as a safety inspector decades ago when NASA downsized the Apollo moon program.
“It’s jobs and the economy,” Posey said during a 45-minute interview in his Washington office. “That’s the biggest [priority].”
Unemployment in Brevard County and Indian River County — the bulk of Posey’s district, which also includes east Orange — is stuck at 8 percent or more and continues to outpace state and national averages.
To cut those numbers, Posey is pushing a multipronged agenda that aims to diversify the economy while reigniting the space sector.
A key first step, he said, is establishing a new commercial launchpad near KSC that could attract emerging rocket companies such as SpaceX.
State officials are working with federal lawmakers to secure a site near the ghost town of Shiloh, which sits on the Volusia-Brevard border.
“The Shiloh site will yield big dividends in the future,” said Posey, including the potential for hundreds of new jobs. But the effort has been snared in red tape and some environmental concerns, and Posey said he plans to hassle federal bureaucrats to hurry the approval along.
Timing is critical because SpaceX is expected to announce soon where it wants its newest launchpad, and Florida must show signs of progress if it hopes to beat competitors such as Texas and Puerto Rico.
Early cost estimates have put the pad’s price tag at less than $100 million, with the bulk of that cost being borne by the company that uses it, along with some state funding.
Outside the space world, Posey is pushing federal regulators at NOAA to reassess fish populations off Florida’s east coast.
In recent years, catching several species — notably red snapper, tilefish and wreckfish — has been restricted because of past overfishing. Posey wants NOAA to take stock now to see whether their populations have rebounded enough to increase catch limits.
A survey on red snapper, for example, is planned to begin in 2014, but Posey and the fishing industry want to begin that work immediately in the hope it generates more work for Florida anglers.
“We firmly believe that if true scientific work was done, the catch [allowed] would be greater than it is now,” said Bob Jones, executive director of the Southeastern Fisheries Association. And, he added, “we’ll back off” if that survey shows the fish are still below required levels.
Posey also is seeking to generate jobs through upgrades at Port Canaveral. Authorities there want to widen the facility from 400 to 500 feet and deepen the harbor by 2 feet — making it roughly 46 feet deep at its lowest point.
“Ships have gotten so large, so fast over the last couple years,” said John Walsh, interim CEO of Port Canaveral. “We need that extra margin of safety.”
The goal is to attract more cruise lines and cargo ships to Port Canaveral. Walsh said the two upgrades could create hundreds, if not thousands more jobs with the increased traffic. The estimated cost of these upgrades is about $54 million, and Posey is seeking to route about $34 million in federal dollars to that effort, with the remainder being covered by state and port funding.
“It’s just a matter of money,” he said.
As a final goal, Posey is pressing to give more flexibility to U.S. Customs and Border Protection so inspection agents can work on a seasonal or part-time basis.
The idea is to help boost flights to facilities such as Melbourne International Airport, which don’t often attract foreign airlines. A more-flexible staffing option could make it more cost-efficient for these small airports to welcome international visitors.
Congress granted that flexibility in a law that passed this year, and now Posey is pressing customs officials to test the new arrangement at Melbourne airport.
“We are a lot further along than we were six months ago,” said Richard Ennis, executive director of Melbourne International Airport.