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 attract 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 businesses and jobs to a region where the traditional industries – steel, coal-mining, manufacturing and farming – have declined.
The buildup has already begun, accommodating the 1million people the Park Service estimates have visited a temporary Flight93 memorial since it opened about six months after the plane plummeted into a reclaimed minefield in Shanksville on Sept. 11, 2001.
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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.
“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 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.