By Sean D. Hamill Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
SOMERSET — Thanks to the increased interest from the opening of the permanent memorial in 2011 and a few highway signs, the Flight 93 National Memorial set an attendance record last year, the Flight 93 Advisory Commission was told Saturday during its quarterly meeting.
“Opening the permanent memorial gave us a boost [in 2011] certainly,” said Barbara Black, the National Park Service’s chief of interpretation and cultural resources. “But putting up the highway signs has really pushed attendance. We’re seeing a lot of people maybe just out on vacation or on business who see the signs and make an impromptu stop now, more than we used to.”
In all, nearly 320,000 people visited the memorial in rural Somerset County in 2012, a figure determined from both person-by-person counts of those riding buses and motorcycles, and a passenger estimate for every other vehicle that enters the national park.
That’s about 60,000 more than the prior record in 2011, and more than double any other year since United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in a field in Stonycreek Township on September 11, 2001, killing all 40 passengers and crew as they battled terrorists for control of the airplane.
The big question now for the park service, said Donna Glessner, vice chairwoman of the commission, is whether that growth will continue.
“We don’t know what future attendance will be like,” she said.
That question has affected the next big project in the development of the $72 million, 1,200-acre park — the visitors center that will tell the Flight 93 story through exhibits, words and pictures, and include a gift shop, and is hoped to help boost attendance even more.
“It will be modest, because the park service just couldn’t fund something larger without really knowing how much interest there will be in the future,” she said.
The advisory commission was told by the park service’s Deputy Superintendent Keith Newlin on Saturday that design plans for the visitors center are nearly complete.
He said bids for construction could be advertised in mid-March, with contracts awarded in May. If construction begins by the end of May, completion could be in time for the 13th anniversary of the attacks in 2014.
A groundbreaking for the visitors center could occur sometime in late spring or early summer.
But while funding for the visitors center is assured, funding for the separate learning center facility — a large, multipurpose building to be used for rotating exhibits, a speaker series and other events — is not yet.
The National Park Foundation, which is leading fundraising efforts with the Friends of Flight 93, hopes to raise $5 million for that project by September and possibly have enough lined up to begin putting out bids for the learning center this year, too.
“We’re eager to have both of those facilities come on line,” said the park service’s Superintendent Jeff Reinbold. “We look forward to the day when we have the visitors center and the learning center open.”
King Laughlin, vice president of the park foundation, told the commission that it is well on its way to raising the $5 million it will contribute for the learning center as well as the Tower of Voices, a tall tower with 40 wind chimes in it — one for each victim — that will stand as a landmark near an entrance to the park.
He said the foundation raised $1.2 million in the last quarter of 2012, and has $12 million in pending proposals to donors that it’s waiting to hear back on.
“We’re optimistic about achieving our goal” he said.
While fundraising until now has been overseen by the foundation, another nonprofit group, the Friends of Flight 93, announced Saturday that over the next two years they will transition to take over that effort as capital fundraising ends, and operational fundraising begins.
To help do that, the foundation gave the Friends a $200,000 two-year grant to pay for the hiring of a full-time executive director who will oversee fundraising and work out of the park service offices at the memorial. The Friends group has hired a head-hunting firm to assist in the hiring of that person.
The Friends, created in 2009, has already done some of the heavy lifting at the memorial, winning grants and rallying volunteer efforts.
They recently won a marketing grant from the Somerset County Tourism Grant program to develop a campaign to attract more visitors to the memorial from the five closest large cities: Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Washington, D.C.
“We want to remind them that the memorial is here and it’s not that far away,” Ms. Glessner told the commission.
“You might think based on Barbara’s report that we don’t need more visitors,” she said, “but we can take more.”