Searching for an economic boost and home to perhaps the most compelling story of 9/11, rural Somerset County is trying to pull off a balancing act: Remembering the victims of United Airlines Flight 93 in a way that encourages development and job growth without devolving into tackiness and disrespect.
Three years before the anticipated opening of a memorial that the National Park Service expects will bring in 250,000 visitors a year, officials say they are working to make this area of western Pennsylvania more hospitable to tourists.
By necessity, they say, this would bring more inns, restaurants and other new businesses and jobs to a region where the traditional industries — steel, coal-mining, manufacturing and farming — have declined over the decades.
The buildup has already begun, accommodating the 1 million people the Park Service estimates have visited a temporary Flight 93 memorial since it opened about six months after the plane plummeted into a reclaimed minefield in Shanksville on Sept. 11, 2001.
The work is creating opportunities in a county of just under 80,000 with a median family income $15,000 below the national average. At the same time, officials say they are determined to find ways to prevent development that could be seen as exploiting the events of Sept. 11, including tacky gift shops on the narrow roads leading to the memorial.
Memorial to open in 2011
"We really don't market, we allow it to do its own thing," said Ron Aldom, executive director of the Somerset County Chamber of Commerce. He said no one wants to do anything to offend the families of the 40 passengers and crew who perished.
"But there is a commitment from this county to make sure that, as people come to this, that the facilities are in place, that we're looking at the traffic patterns, that we're looking at the safety issues," he said.
The $58 million memorial to the victims is scheduled to open in Shanksville, a town of about 250 about 70 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, on the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
Flight 93 plummeted out of a crystal clear sky at nearly 600 mph, missing nearby homes and the area's only school by barely a mile on either side.
Investigators believe terrorists crashed the plane as passengers rushed the cockpit, making it the only one of the four airliners hijacked that day that did not reach its intended target, believed to be Washington.
Today, a fence decorated with flags, hats and other memorabilia left by visitors stands close to the site of the actual crash. A small National Park Service hut, rows of marble plaques and benches with the names of those who died tell the story.
In the past three years, at least a dozen small inns and bed and breakfasts have opened in a 15-mile radius of the crash site, Aldom said. At least a dozen restaurants have also opened.
"It's sparked investment, no doubt," Aldom said.
There are other projects where visitors to the memorial may have played a factor, such as the impending reopening of a ski resort that had been closed in recent years, and the renovation of one of the two other ski resorts in the area.
Linda Musser, owner of Saddle Ridge Bed and Breakfast, opened her three-room, country-style inn in the spring of 2005. Under "local attractions" on her Web site, the first listing is the Flight 93 temporary memorial, just a mile away.
Region has more than one attraction
For no more than $95 a night, Musser's guests can enjoy the rural lifestyle, her pet goats, s'mores on a campfire and the front porch. Since opening, occupancy has risen each year, peaking this past summer, she said.
"We thought with the crash site being here, we'd be able to offer a place to stay in a rural area if someone wanted to spend a few days," Musser said.
County officials are focusing on both zoning and traffic issues along an 18-mile corridor from the county seat of Somerset to Shanksville, hoping to build up the area while also preserving the dignity of the approach to the memorial.
They want to be able to direct people to other attractions in the region — like the Great Allegheny Passage, a bike trail along an abandoned railroad corridor — but keep gift shops off the main route.
Pamela Tokar-Ickes, chairwoman of the Somerset County Commissioners, said the county is working with municipalities surrounding the crash site to prevent inappropriate development. Because of the aversion of towns to zoning laws, she said, they are trying to do so without passing ordinances.
"We have time to develop the corridor in a way that will be respectful and sensitive to all the people," Tokar-Ickes said. "Development is not bad if done in the proper way."
A crash, mine rescue and flood
Already, visitors who go to the Flight 93 crash site are encouraged to do "the loop."
After visiting the temporary memorial, they can drive about 15 miles to the Quecreek rescue center, the site of the dramatic 2002 rescue of nine trapped miners that returned this rural area into the international spotlight just 10 months after the attacks.
Visitors also can travel 27 miles north from Shanksville to Johnstown to visit a museum dedicated to the flood that killed 2,209 people there in 1889.
The remote crash site has been particularly popular among motorcyclists, with the first organized ride to the site taking place less than two months after the crash, said Bob Leverknight, a photojournalist for the Somerset Daily American who lives barely a mile from the site.
"The drone of open-piped motorcycles is almost eternal now from sunup to sundown," he said.
Debby Borza of San Diego, whose daughter, Deora Bodley, died in the crash, said skiers, hikers and bikers are encouraged to visit the memorial when in Somerset.
"They're very charming, warm. Visitors come, they're very accommodating," Borza said of the county's residents. "It's an honor for the county and they take pride in being that place so that people can come and be a part of history."