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Need A Good Jobs Story? Try Florida's Space Coast

At the height of the space shuttle program, there were 18,000 people working at the Kennedy Space Center.

Space Shuttle Endeavour
Getty Images
Space Shuttle Endeavour

When it ended last summer, that number dropped by more than half almost immediately.

Conventional wisdom was that the surrounding communities would suffer severe economic hardship.

What CNBC learned from being on the ground there: It's not the case.

Unemployment ballooned to 11.7 percent last August, but since then, there's been an impressive infusion of positive energy — not to mention millions of investment dollars ... and jobs. (Read More: New Jobs at 96,000, Missing Expectations; Rate Hits 8.1%.)

Boeing , Embraer , SpaceX and Lockheed Martin are some of the companies that entered Brevard County to take advantage of Florida's business friendly environment and the Space Coast's highly skilled but under-utilized work force.

Embraer invested $50 million and established two facilities — a manufacturing plant and a showroom for their private jets.

"We narrowed it down to three states and six sites," said Gary Spulak, President of Embraer Aircraft Holdings. "The one here in Melbourne caught our eye because of the qualified workforces that is available here, especially with the retirement of the Space Shuttle program."

Yes, unemployment remains uncomfortably high, but it's down two whole points in a year. (Read More: America's Top States for Job Creation 2012.)

Embraer added 230 jobs. Midair SA, which leases and trades aircraft, hired 450 people in the area. SpaceX won a NASA contract and CEO Elon Musk said he will hire up to 1,000 people in the next four to five years. NASA also tabbed Boeing, which plans to add 550 jobs between now and 2015. These are not fly-by-night companies.

"Most of the people will be from the local workforce," said John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for Boeing's commercial crew program.

The logical question is exactly how this happened. How?

The first key was anticipation. Local leaders knew the space shuttle era was coming to a close, and they did not wait. (Read More: End of Space Shuttle Program to Have Far Reaching Impact.)

"We're still working on it," said Lynda Weatherman, CEO of the Space Coast Economic Development Commission. "But we have been able to prove that if a community identifies a project early on and tries to start negotiating with the company early, that's your chance to mitigate [the loss of Shuttle program]."

"We went out to the community, to our elected officials, and said we have a plan," she said. "And we've been successful."

In the last year, Florida's Space Coast attracted more than 2,300 new jobs, $240 million in capital investment and $360 in new construction.

Diversification was the second element of this quick economic recovery. In this region, that means moving beyond the space program — even beyond aeronautics.

According to the Economic Development Commission, the biggest growth areas right now are professional services, construction, healthcare and and financial services.

"We are a community that faced this in the Apollo days, when Columbia exploded," Weatherman said. "Being used to it doesn't make you immune to it — it makes you remember it."

And that has helped the community get over it.

—By CNBC's Brian Shactman and Jessica Golden
@bshactman

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