Air show provides economic boost for Westmoreland County |
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Jeff Himler

Fans who flock to Westmoreland County’s annual air show this weekend will be taking away memories of thrilling sky-high maneuvers. At the same time, they’ll be giving back — to the local economy.

The Shop ’n Save Westmoreland County Airshow at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport is one of the biggest draws among summer events in the county. Event organizers with the Westmoreland County Airport Authority estimate 100,000 spectators gather at the Unity airport over the show’s two-day run.

According to a recent study by the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau, each of those visitors, on average, may spend between $100 and $400 while enjoying a day in the county.

Add to that total the people who are traveling to the county to help put on the show.

“In addition to performers and static aircraft crews, we draw about 100 vendors per year,” noted Dwayne Pickels, grants director for the airport authority.

In comparison, Executive Director Diane Shrader estimates the four-day, admission-free Westmoreland Arts and Heritage Festival attracts about 125,000 visitors during early July each year, if the weather is good — as well as about 180 crafters, the majority of whom arrive from outside the county.

In August, the weeklong Westmoreland Fair sees attendance of about 65,000, while also attracting about 1,100 exhibitors.

The air show is “beneficial in a lot of ways,” said Briana Tomack, president of the Greater Latrobe-Laurel Valley Regional Chamber of Commerce. “The economic impact starts with hotels and also would funnel into restaurants and tourist attractions” — for air show attendees who explore additional local options for dining and diversion.

Heavy traffic on Route 30 in the area of the airport is an expected side effect of the air show that, nevertheless, comes with a silver lining.

“I go to the air show each year, and I see people from outside of the county,” said Westmoreland County Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Chad Amond. “That’s a good thing.

“It impacts the hotels, the restaurants and the shopping facilities, and it brings attention to the airport. It’s a positive thing for the community and for all of Southwestern Pennsylvania.”

Profits from air show ticket and program sales generated $31,740 last year for Feherty’s Troops First Foundation, which benefits military members wounded in combat during post-9/11 service. Show profits will be donated to the foundation again this year.

Proceeds from a $5 parking fee, which totaled about $20,000 last year, are divided among volunteer fire departments and civic groups that provide volunteers to help with the air show.

Early dates mesh with Memorial Day

This year’s air show is atypical because it’s being held so early, on Memorial Day weekend.

“It’s a great way to kick off the summer,” said Anna Weltz, director of public relations for the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau.

Airport officials say the dates were determined by the availability of aerial performers, but they’re keeping the show in tune with the holiday’s recognition of wartime service and sacrifice.

As with past air shows, this year’s will have its share of vintage military aircraft in static ground displays and in the air. Included are a P-51 Mustang fighter plane that dates to World War II and a Bell UH-1 “Huey” helicopter that was used for transport in the Vietnam era and beyond.

One of the highlights of the show will be “Tora! Tora! Tora!” a Texas-based act that uses replica planes and explosive ground effects to reenact the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that triggered the United States‘ entry into World War II.

Sunday’s 10:30 a.m. opening ceremony for the air show will include a Memorial Day procession involving high school marching bands from Greater Latrobe and Hempfield Area, a local honor guard, Boy Scouts, emergency responders and bagpipe players.

Airport dance adopts WWII theme

The air show has inspired a separate but complementary event — a World War II-themed Big Band dance Saturday evening at DeNunzio’s Italian Chophouse in the airport terminal. The dance includes a 1940s costume contest and will feature the music of the Glass City Swing Band of Jeannette. Walk-in registration for the dance costs $50 and will be accepted until 7:15 p.m.

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