In Cocoa Beach, you can be anything. Next door to Cape Canaveral, this island community welcomes diverse experience. And if you like to connect with others, air your opinions, and lend a helping hand, you'll find your niche.
Take City Commissioner Tony Sasso, an avid surfer and energetic official who moved here in 1999. Two Thursdays a month, he arrives at Roberto's Little Havana Restaurant by 8 a.m., grabs the big table, and awaits his public. Locals stroll in like a sampling of Cocoa Beach, population 12,800. From tanned 20-somethings to white-haired snowbirds who've nested, they comment on lifeguard needs, unfixed curbs, the sales-tax hike, today's wave action. Tony listens intently. "This is fun," he says. "It's hard to make decisions when nobody's giving input."
Or take just about anyone in Cocoa Beach during hurricane season. While 2005 spared the town, 2004 was a different story. "Hurricanes Ivan and Charley loosened everything, and Frances and Jeanne nearly washed it away," says Kathi Schillo, president and CEO of Cocoa Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. "But people were phenomenal. Dunkin' Donuts delivered food. Businesses paid for things for each other. There was heartfelt commitment."
"We're on a barrier island," says Tony. "So maybe it's a shared sense of survival that makes us want to work together." They also share a treasured setting: the waves and shore.
"My husband, Demetre, fell in love with this place as a young bachelor physician," says Diana Stathis. "He drove over the causeway, saw the beach, and that was that. In 1985, he bought a cozy little cottage." It's since been extensively remodeled with state-of-the-art storm-proofing. But Diana says Hurricane Frances got to her, emotionally. "I said, 'I'm outta here.' But the ocean is so mesmerizing. You can't really leave."
In such a vulnerable location, Cocoa Beach remained sparsely settled until Cape Canaveral's first rocket launch in 1950. Then, as in all of Brevard County, the town grew hot with space fever. By 1960, the population swelled 1,000 percent. Hotels and condos began to change the funky beach scene.
"Getting a man on the moon was the driving force―not community planning," says Lynda Weatherman, president and CEO of the Economic Development Commission of Florida's Space Coast. For now, Cocoa Beach conservationists and developers have struck a tolerable balance: Strict density and height limits apply to all new construction, but most hurricane-damaged structures can be replaced as they were.
Looking to the future and the 2010 shuttle phaseout, Cocoa Beach has defined itself beyond the space industry. Still, those rockets never fail to captivate. Says Tony, "There's a special energy here when either of two things happens: big waves or a new launch."
Cocoa Beach Area Chamber of Commerce; 321/459-2200 or cocoabeachchamber.com
(published March 2006)