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Somerset officials say windmills generate tourism

Tourism brochures tout the region’s mountains, lakes, ski slopes and trails.

But some officials think those promotional guides should start including windmill sites.

While the turbines popping up on the Cambria-Somerset horizon may not have the charm of the backyard devices among the tulip fields of Holland, these structures already are playing a role in drawing tourists to Somerset County.

Some believe the windmills could do a lot more than generate power.

“It’s how you sell it and how you market yourself,” said Erik Foley, director of the Renewable Energy Center at St. Francis University. “We could become the clean energy capital of the world.”

The Bedford County Visitors Bureau has taken a position that the windmills planned for its ridges will have an adverse impact on its second-largest industry ““ tourism. Somerset County officials disagree, saying windmills there have boosted tourism.

The novelty of windmills is already helping the local economy, Somerset County commissioner Brad Cober said.

“I’d say it does play a major role in getting people off the turnpike to check them out,” Cober said.

Statistics on windmills as tourist attractions in Somerset County are not available. But the American Wind Energy Association maintains that many rural areas experience increases in tourism after wind farms were built.

During a recent stay at a hunting camp, which Cober described as 300 feet from one of the Somerset County’s highest turbines, he counted six different groups of tourists at the base of the structure.

This turbine, visible from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, has been equipped with an interactive display that talks of windmill technology and provides dimensions.

“We now have bus tours coming in to see the windmills,” he said.

Seven Springs Resort provides tours of nearby wind farms as activity for convention visitors.

Ron Aldom, executive director of the Somerset County Chamber of Commerce, said windmills have done more to draw people to the county than to turn them away.

“They want to get to the base of them, they want to get near to them,” Aldom said.

“It definitely hasn’t hurt our tourism.”

The demand for information and locations has grown so that the chamber now offers brochures detailing how turbines are built and where visitors can go to experience them up close.

“We get an amazing number of calls and people stopping in asking for information on them,” Aldom said.

“People are extremely interested.”

This region may never go as far as Oklahoma and Texas ”“ where a consortium has launched a tour retelling the history of wind energy along a 600-mile corridor, Foley said.

But some positive impact can already be felt in Cambria County from the Allegheny Ridge Wind Farm being developed by Gamesa USA.

“The project is causing a lot of people to talk about the economic impact,” he said.

By Kathy Mellott
The Tribune-Democrat