Recalling some boom times

Published 2:29 pm Friday, April 16, 2010

In a little coastal town in a time warp long ago, it was four o’clock in the morning, and the city council was still in session, a session that began the night before at 7 p.m.

My new bride wondered when I finally unlocked the front door of our small apartment at nearly 5 a.m., where I had been all night.

“Reporting on the city council meeting,” I replied.

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The new bride wanting to be trusting, believed me. These long city council sessions were routine in the mid 1960s.

The little coastal town was Titusville, Fla., with all its additional little coastal towns in Brevard County now being severely impacted by the space program. In his inaugural address to the nation, President John F. Kennedy threw down the challenge that within the decade, he wanted someone to walk on the moon.

And the job went to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which selected Brevard County, Fla., and its prominent Cape Canaveral as the launching site.

We were there.

Talk about boom times.

The reason I bring this up is because our new president, Barack Obama, wants to have a man walking on Mars, giving new direction to the space program.

Just this week, the President toured the space facility on Cape Canaveral to lend his support to the agency, and to push the Mars program.

What the moon program did to Brevard County was beyond astounding. Here were a strip of small towns, with weekly newspapers, little population, suddenly exploding with a huge government program dumped upon it with its goal to launch a manned rocket to land on the moon and safely return.

There was no housing to accommodate the gathering herds, few schools, two-lane roads to handle thousands of new vehicles, inadequate bridges to the get workers onto Cape Canaveral launch sites, dismal retail outlets, or just about anything to handle a boom time in-migration of thousands of space workers and their families, aerospace companies with big contracts, government agencies and everything else to provide necessary services to thousands of new workers there now and more on their way.

It was a mess.

It was also an exciting place to be in the news business.

The Orlando Sentinel had a small five-day-a-week Brevard County newspaper supplement, which on a good day would count 12 pages. As the influx of people came in, and the county grew in all phases, the supplement grew also to the same size as the daily Sentinel, and even in late years, as big as the Sunday Sentinel itself.

Why was this reporter sitting in Titusville City Hall chambers at 4 o’clock in the morning? Because in the mid ’60s, about five years after President Kennedy’s challenge, everything was booming big time in what was now being called “The Space Coast.” It was not unusual for the city council agenda to top 20 pages, most of the items being public hearings to change zoning classifications.

The requests were for apartment complexes, housing subdivisions, service stations, retail strip shopping centers, new schools and additions to schools, new roads and road widenings, new bridges and widening of old bridges, recreation areas, churches, and on and on…

Along with taking care of the population impact, industrial parks and buildings were needed for research and office space for the aerospace industry. You name a big company anywhere in the country, and they were there, either with a building, building a building or planning a building. Plus NASA was building rocket launch sites for three space programs.

It was not uncommon too for these industries to have their headquarters in nearby towns because facilities in Brevard County were so primitive. General Electric, for example, constructed a huge eight-building complex in Daytona Beach, hiring hundreds of workers to comply with its aerospace contracts. Better amenities were in place. Others followed.

Our small apartment in Titusville was an add-on to the Titusville mayor’s house, which happened to be fronting the Banana River, directly across from the launch sites at Cape Canaveral. We would sit on the mayor’s dock, watch the rockets go up during the Gemini program, those early one-man experimental flights. We watched some of the three-man Apollo launches, but alas, when it was time to send the flight to the moon, we had been recalled to Orlando, and had to watch it on TV, then rush outside to see the trail of smoke from the rockets 50 miles away.

Now in Orlando, in the early 1970s, it was time to be part of another boom time event, the construction of Walt Disney World, which would have an enormous impact on Central Florida as no other event. It was fun to be part of all of this growth, and it continues today although on a smaller scale.

It is doubtful that today the Titusville City Council meetings go much after 10 p.m. And If I told them that there was a time when those meetings exceeded past 4 a.m., they wouldn’t believe me.