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BREVARD COUNTY (CBS4) – This Friday’s launch of the space shuttle Endeavour is like the Superbowl for Space Coast businesses.

Hotels are sold out, restaurants are doubling up on supplies and some residents are even renting bedrooms in their homes.

“The shuttle program is winding down and this is something that is on everybody’s bucket list,” said Rob Varley, the area’s top tourism official. “For many people, it’s like ‘Uh-oh. We only have two more chances to see one’.”

Crowd estimates vary.  Brevard County officials have said they expect around 250,000 visitors but NASA’s launch director has said he believes the figure will be closer to 500,000. Varley is guessing 700,000. That figure would rival John Glenn’s space shuttle launch in 1998 and those from some of the Apollo moon launches in the 1960s and 1970s.

In addition to being the second to last shuttle launch, the mission has also attracted extra attention because its commander is Mark Kelly, whose wife is Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords who received a serious head wound in a January assassination attempt. She arrived at Cape Canaveral on Wednesday and is expected to watch the launch from a private location. Also in attendance will be President Barack Obama and the first family.

Endeavour’s launch may be one of the last economic jolts for the region. The Space Coast is still reeling from Florida’s housing slump, NASA contractors already have laid-off thousands of workers and the unemployment rate is over 11 percent. Empty storefronts dot some shopping malls and vacant condos are common along the beach.

Shuttle launches usually generate about $5 million in economic activity for the Space Coast. Given the huge crowds expected, the Endeavour launch could generate more than $15 million, Varley said.

Tony Simons placed an ad on Craigslist hoping to rent two empty units at the Seacoast Arms Apartments in Titusville, about a mile from one of the most popular places to view shuttle launches.
He got one rented for the launch but was still looking Wednesday for tourists willing to spend $300 a night on the two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment with a three-night minimum. The launch is providing some extra cash for Simons, the apartment complex’s manager, especially as the recession forced him to lower rents from $750 to $500 a month.

“Heaven yes!” Simons said when asked if he was expecting a small economic pop from the launch.

Other businesses are too.

The storage space at Dixie Crossroads Seafood Restaurant is jammed full with extra dry goods, paper plates and napkins. Owner Lauralee Thompson expects business to more than double on Friday from the usual 1,500 daily diners to more than 3,000 patrons looking for plates of rock shrimp, oysters and hush puppies. With an average check at $17.50, Friday’s revenue could spike to more than $52,000 from the usual $26,000 at Titusville’s largest restaurant, with 465 seats.

“Shuttle launches are absolutely great for business,” Thompson said.

Friday’s Traffic is expected to be so congested that if the countdown is halted at the last minute because of poor weather or technical problems, NASA may delay the next attempt by two days instead of one to avoid launch team members getting stuck in traffic and unable to get enough rest for the 24-hour turnaround.

Local police agencies also plan to use the county’s emergency operations center so they can coordinate traffic flow better. Cocoa Beach schools are planning to let students out early, if the launch stays on schedule, to avoid the traffic headaches. Obama and his entourage will not affect traffic since his plane will land at the Kennedy Space Center.

(©2011 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)


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