BREEZEWOOD - It's been called "The City of Motels," "The Travelers' Oasis," and, less attractively, "a polyp on the nation's interstate highway system."
Breezewood, the half-mile strip of traffic lights, restaurants and truck stops that for decades has forced motorists to pause between Interstate 70 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, has depended and thrived on the interstate road network for decades.
But over the last several years, Breezewood - officially an unincorporated section of East Providence Township in Bedford County - has undergone a dramatic shift, with hospitality businesses shuttering and landowners nervously wondering whether the economy will ever recover.
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
Breezewood has benefited from the traffic resulting from the intersection of Interstate 70 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, but business has fallen in recent years.
A few others, meanwhile, have carved out niches and thrived.
"This used to be 'The City of Hotels,'" said Roger Layton, an employee at Crawford's Gift Shop about 300 feet from the turnpike on-ramp. "Now, they're done."
It's no exaggeration: Of the 14 Breezewood hotels listed in a 2007 telephone directory, at least five have since closed. One was bought out last year and quickly torn down.
Another, the famous Penn Aire Motel along the century-old Lincoln Highway, now sits empty. Its fading marquee reads: "CLOSED."
"It used to be a top motel," a neighboring hotel manager said. "Now it's abandoned. It's completely abandoned. They took everything out of it."
Many business owners seem to agree that Breezewood's success, or at least a part of it, has taken a hit with the national economic crisis.
Their opinions diverge only when asked what caused the decline - and whether business is already starting to turn around.
'Just passing through'
Take a stroll along Breezewood's main drag, and you'll see at least as many out-of-state license plates as Pennsylvania ones.
In the parking lots surrounding gas stations, convenience stores and restaurants, exasperated parents try to silence bored children, and motorists quickly grab food before returning to the road.
"We're just passing through," an Ohio woman said in a Wendy's parking lot.
"Just traveling through," said a Virginia man checking under the hood of his Mercedes at Sheetz. On the road nearby, cars and 18-wheelers honked and fought to beat lights as traffic backed up.
All this can be attributed to a highway spacing anomaly that, beginning in the 1960s, forced motorists heading west from I-70 or south from the turnpike to traverse a tiny section of Route 30 - the famous Lincoln Highway - before returning to the interstate.
By the turn of the 21st century, Breezewood counted dozens of businesses, the vast majority directed at its captive audience of passing travelers.
Midwestern vacationers and Southern truckers alike had a reason to stop there, even if some complained about turnpike tolls and irritating traffic lights.
Just about anyone from central Pennsylvania who's taken a beach vacation has been through the strip at one time or another.
The town's dependence on the tourist industry is apparent in its seasonal business cycle, said Jamie Prosser, general manager of Bedford County Oil, which owns hospitality, fuel and rental properties.
"The past couple months have been good," Prosser said. "But it fades off. In a couple months, it'll be a ghost town."
The first minor shock to Breezewood's hospitality industry came as early as 1991, some have said, when I-68 connected upstate Maryland to West Virginia nearly parallel with the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Still, all through the 1990s, newspapers and business magazines featured lengthy articles on the highway phenomenon, most expressing amazement that such a bright, tightly concentrated business strip could exist in the middle of the Appalachians.
Then came the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and with them a painful drop in national tourism. Soon after, gas prices rose sharply, continuing to drive up for years, and hurt tourism even further.
One by one, old Breezewood hotels shut their doors.
"Ninety-nine percent of it is going to be your fuel prices," said one hotel manager, who asked not to be named due to job concerns. "I can't afford $4 a gallon for gas. ... That's the reason why Breezewood is so dead."
Tourism took a third blow with the nationwide recession, leaving hotel and restaurant owners concerned that the economy might never rebound, said Robert Bittner, whose family owns the 24-hour Gateway Travel Plaza near the strip's eastern end.
"Business is slow. It's very, very slow," Bittner said. "People aren't traveling."
In March 2010, the Bittners' company sued Bedford County, citing an arbitrary reassessment that led to punishingly high property tax rates. A judge threw out the suit seven months later.
That same year, the Ramada Inn down the road shut its doors. The Bittners' company, Breezewood Enterprises Inc., bought the hotel in spring 2011 and bulldozed it before the year's end.
The Post House, a cafeteria serving charter bus groups - and a Breezewood institution for decades - closed in 2004. Employees at the time said they hoped a new company would pick up the $2 million property after its lease expired that summer.
Today, the Post House's exterior is overgrown with weeds.
Arsonists allegedly targeted the disused Penn Aire Motel last year, burning mattresses and causing tens of thousands of dollars in damage.
Among those hotels that remain, some have changed hands repeatedly within a few years, managers said.
"It all depends on the fuel price. The economy is driven by fuel no matter where you are or what you're doing," Prosser said. "And right now, gas prices are up. They're climbing."
Prosser said the availability of nearby access roads and the increasing competitiveness of turnpike service plazas have taken a swipe at Breezewood's business.
The state's Sideling Hill plaza, directly accessible from the turnpike, is situated just 10 miles east of the strip; its Midway plazas are 15 miles to the west.
The proliferation of modern hotels around Bedford, just a few miles away, likely hasn't helped, County Commissioner Steven Howsare said.
Asked whether he thinks business will pick up when the economy improves, Bittner had a grim prognosis: "I don't know that the economy will improve," he said. "We can hope and pray. We're always going to hope."
Not every entrepreneur offers such a serious interpretation.
In fact, business has been getting better, said Immer Palacios, who for six years has owned the Wiltshire Motel near the strip's western edge.
"I would say 2010 was a pretty bad year. '11 wasn't very good. But this year we're doing a lot better," Palacios said.
The key, he said, was using the Internet to lure travelers who otherwise wouldn't have considered the Wiltshire, a single-story, old-style motel dating to 1956.
Through a modest website and a handful of positive online reviews, Palacios said he was able to thrive after the downturn that swept away less-well-managed hotels.
"Some people just don't put their money back into their businesses," Palacios said.
And the Wiltshire Motel isn't the only 1950s business that's been reinvented amid the tourism dip and economic crisis.
Hurriedly loading Steelers collectibles into boxes outside as dark rain clouds approached, Layton of Crawford's Gift Shop explained how the 6,000-square-foot building on the Lincoln Highway - built same year the turnpike first crossed Breezewood - went from a museum to a thriving sports-gear business.
The original owner had opened a museum there in the 1950s, stocked with realistic taxidermy animals collected during overseas hunting expeditions.
The museum shut down each fall, opening in time for the summer tourist rush.
But in 2002, the current owner recognized a new market: western Pennsylvania natives living around Baltimore and Washington, D.C., frequently visiting home and eager to represent their birthplace.
"No matter how bad the economy is, people fall back on their sports," Layton said.
Today, the long building is packed with clothes and doodads bearing Steelers, Penguins, Pitt, Penn State and West Virginia University logos, among others.
"In the last four years, it's prospered," Layton said under a huge taxidermy elephant's head. "It's just unbelievable."
Despite periodic dips in tourism and ebbs in the trucking industry, Breezewood's unique position will likely allow business to survive there indefinitely.
While some travelers grumble about the forced stop - words like "racketeering" and "hijacking" turn up online - the only real nail in Breezewood's coffin would be a federal highway bypass, like the one that created the 13-mile stretch of abandoned highway nearby in 1968.
Howsare said such a dramatic change is unlikely, at least for the foreseeable future.
Until then, he said, Breezewood's tourist-dependent economy will likely mirror the country's.
"It's definitely a struggle for some of the businesses out there," he said. "But for every company that struggles, there's another company that finds an opportunity."
Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.