Space Coast draws military retirees

Published On: May 27 2013 10:01:00 AM EDT
MELBOURNE, Fla. -

Retired Rear Adm. Tom Matteson lived in 13 communities during his 36-year Coast Guard career.

But when it came time to pick a place to retire, all it took was one visit to an old academy buddy in Melbourne. He knew this would be home.

"We prefer the less traffic and the slower pace," said Matteson, who served as the superintendent of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., before becoming superintendent of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y.

Matteson is in good company on the Space Coast. In fact, when it comes to the ratio of military-to-civilian residents, Brevard County's veteran community is anywhere from 66,000 to 72,000, depending on which government agency's data is used to measure its size. In either event, they represent approximately one in every six adults on the Space Coast and they have a significant impact on the community, in everything from spending money to leading community groups.

A review of a database obtained from the Department of Veterans Affairs indicates that money flowing into the county because of the veterans living here surpassed $350 million in 2012. Almost two-thirds of the spending came in compensation paid to the retired military members. The other big piece of the local spending was about $117 million that the government spent on health care in Brevard County for military retirees.

The economic impact of the veterans' population in Brevard was higher than in all but seven Florida counties, all of them part of the major metropolitan areas of Miami, Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville.

"They have a positive influence in the community," said Dr. Lance Armstrong, chairman of the Military Affairs Council of the Cocoa Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.

Armstrong said the military retirees often serve in volunteer roles in the community and they donate to help other veterans.

Military retirees are attracted to the Space Coast by typical Florida things - tropical weather, coastal access, golfing, boating and other outdoor activities that can be enjoyed all year - but also the slower pace, established military community and proximity to Patrick Air Force Base, which are unique to Brevard.

In fact, Brevard is home to more veterans than the vast majority of communities across the United States. Brevard ranks among the top 40 of the nation's more than 3,100 counties when it comes to the number of resident veterans, and that's not expected to change any time soon.

An analysis of Veterans Affairs data by FLORIDA TODAY shows that the government expects the veterans population here to shrink somewhat as those who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam die. But the reductions here won't be as sharp as in some other counties. By 2040, the government expects about 43,000 veterans to still be living in Brevard, and the county to be among the top 40 still three decades down the road.

"We used to say it was the best kept secret in the world," retired Air Force Lt. Col. Bill Fletcher said of his military-friendly neighborhood and surrounding area. "It's been everything you would want."

When Fletcher moved to Indian River Colony Club in Viera in 1989, the gated community was open only to retired military officers. In 2000, restrictions changed to allow up to 20 percent of the homes to be occupied by civilians. In 2011, the community allowed any honorably discharged military veteran to apply to live there. Today, 87 percent of IRCC's 772 homes are occupied by veterans.

Patrick Air Force Base's amenities also are a draw. Military retirees can take advantage of shopping, the medical clinic and pharmacy, golfing and other benefits available to them at the base.

Matteson, 77, the retired two-star admiral who ended his career as superintendent of the Merchant Marine Academy in 1998, has friends who live in the area.

After visiting them only a few times, he bought a lot and built a home two years before moving here.

"We enjoy the people," he said. "This is our home. Both of our kids followed us here."

On a trip in his boat from Stuart to Jekyll Island, retired Maj. Gen. Gene Anderson made a stop in Brevard and decided to take a look at IRCC, which he had seen advertised in veterans magazines.

"They hit the list," he said. "I like this county because it has a lot of things going. Traffic is not that bad yet. It is centrally located."

As the commanding general of the 3rd Armored Division, Anderson was stationed in Germany and has experienced living in many different areas of the United States.

But he said that when it came to choosing a place to retire, few places could compete with Brevard.

"It has a little of everything," Anderson said, citing the area's hospitals, "interesting" shopping areas and cultural places like the King Center for Performing Arts.

And as many others do, he also cited the climate.

"I like the warm weather," he said. "I've been cold and wet too many times."

Anderson has lived at IRCC for 15 years. Who wouldn't want to live in Brevard, he said.

After all, there are about 60 miles of accessible coastline and about two-thirds of the year is either sunny or partly sunny.

In addition, property taxes in most of Florida are relatively low, and the state is one of the few without income tax.

Fletcher, 91, who was a navigator on a B-17 in World War II, retired from the military in 1970, with hopes of going to Hawaii. He wound up there, working for the University of Hawaii.

"All my career, I thought if I could get to Hawaii..." he said.

But after four years on the Pacific island, Fletcher was back on the mainland, visiting Vero Beach, where he had family. He visited IRCC in 1988 and moved there the following year. He plays golf most days.

Duke Bickmore, 65, who retired as a major from the Marine Corps, said that after being on the Space Coast almost eight years, he can't imagine living anywhere else.

"Brevard County winds up being the undiscovered jewel you don't know is there until you get here," said Bickmore, who lives at IRCC. "The county just keeps improving."

Bickmore said that he and his wife like the nearby Brevard Zoo, the King Center, Kennedy Space Center and the beaches.

"There is just so much here," he said.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Bill Welser said many military retirees stay where they were last assigned, move to somewhere they once served or move close to family.

When he left the Air Force, Welser came to Brevard because of a civilian job, but stayed once he left the company. At the time, he and his family owned a home in Virginia, near Washington, D.C. He commuted to Brevard for two years.

"I got hired by Northrup Grumman for the tanker program," Welser said of the planned aerial refueling aircraft.

He decided to retire in Melbourne, where he remains busy volunteering as president of the Space Coast Honor Flight, on the board of Habitat for Humanity and working as an independent consultant for various organizations. He attends church and is part of the choir at Patrick Air Force Base.

Welser, 63, said he is as busy as he was before retirement.

"We stayed in the area because of Patrick," he said.

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