Gary Bogdon

In this Florida Space Coast town, a shared sense of pride forges a promising future.

Susan Haynes

In Cocoa Beach, you can be anything. Next door to CapeCanaveral, this island community welcomes diverse experience. Andif you like to connect with others, air your opinions, and lend ahelping hand, you'll find your niche.

Take City Commissioner Tony Sasso, an avid surfer and energeticofficial who moved here in 1999. Two Thursdays a month, he arrivesat Roberto's Little Havana Restaurant by 8 a.m., grabs the bigtable, and awaits his public. Locals stroll in like a sampling ofCocoa Beach, population 12,800. From tanned 20-somethings towhite-haired snowbirds who've nested, they comment on lifeguardneeds, unfixed curbs, the sales-tax hike, today's wave action. Tonylistens intently. "This is fun," he says. "It's hard to makedecisions when nobody's giving input."

Or take just about anyone in Cocoa Beach during hurricaneseason. While 2005 spared the town, 2004 was a different story."Hurricanes Ivan and Charley loosened everything, and Frances andJeanne nearly washed it away," says Kathi Schillo, president andCEO of Cocoa Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. "But people werephenomenal. Dunkin' Donuts delivered food. Businesses paid forthings for each other. There was heartfelt commitment."

"We're on a barrier island," says Tony. "So maybe it's a sharedsense of survival that makes us want to work together." They alsoshare a treasured setting: the waves and shore.

"My husband, Demetre, fell in love with this place as a youngbachelor physician," says Diana Stathis. "He drove over thecauseway, saw the beach, and that was that. In 1985, he bought acozy little cottage." It's since been extensively remodeled withstate-of-the-art storm-proofing. But Diana says Hurricane Francesgot to her, emotionally. "I said, 'I'm outta here.' But the oceanis so mesmerizing. You can't really leave."

In such a vulnerable location, Cocoa Beach remained sparselysettled until Cape Canaveral's first rocket launch in 1950. Then,as in all of Brevard County, the town grew hot with space fever. By1960, the population swelled 1,000 percent. Hotels and condos beganto change the funky beach scene.

"Getting a man on the moon was the driving force―notcommunity planning," says Lynda Weatherman, president and CEO ofthe Economic Development Commission of Florida's Space Coast. Fornow, Cocoa Beach conservationists and developers have struck atolerable balance: Strict density and height limits apply to allnew construction, but most hurricane-damaged structures can bereplaced as they were.

Looking to the future and the 2010 shuttle phaseout, Cocoa Beachhas defined itself beyond the space industry. Still, those rocketsnever fail to captivate. Says Tony, "There's a special energy herewhen 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)

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