For almost three years, a group of Washington area executives has been gathering regularly for lunch at a restaurant in Ballston, brought together by a shared project: an interactive Web portal dedicated to those who lost their lives in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The Living Memorial, announced yesterday in New York, was conceived by Monica Iken, who lost her husband, a bond trader, in the attacks on the World Trade Center. While it is expected to take almost a decade to construct a memorial in Lower Manhattan, Iken's nonprofit group, September's Mission, set out to create more quickly an archival spot in cyberspace for mourners and scholars of the attacks.
Although Iken is in New York, planning for the memorial has largely been done in the large booths and at the bar of the Front Page restaurant in Ballston, augmented by slews of e-mails and teleconferences.
The Washington area connection grew as many networking opportunities do, from one fortuitous contact to another.
It started when Iken realized she needed to learn how to talk to the media about her plans for a memorial. One of Iken's relatives suggested Scott Warner, a director at McLean public relations company Qorvis. Warner's Qorvis colleague, Esther Smith, suggested her daughter Amy Smith, president of White Oak Communications in Washington, who has a background in architecture, government relations and federal proposal-writing. Amy Smith, in turn, suggested hiring Julie Holdren, founder and principal of software firm Twin-Soft in Alexandria, to build the site. Smith and Holdren met several years ago through an investment club called WomenAngels. Holdren appointed Missy McCool, who had worked for her at her previous company, the Olympus Group, as creative director.
The final two members of the contingent, Russ Elmer, general counsel of E-Trade, and Marsha Baker, a project director at E-Trade, signed on in May when the company decided to give $500,000 toward the online memorial. E-Trade's Washington area office, on the other side of the Ballston Common Mall from the Front Page, employs about 800 people. Although the company is headquartered in New York, its chief executive and other top officers, including Elmer, work from the Ballston office. The company has become a force in the area since E-Trade bought TeleBanc Financial Corp. of Arlington, a fast-growing Internet bank, in 1999.
E-Trade had created a Sept. 11 "relief fund" after the terrorist attacks and was looking for a way to use the money when the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation suggested that Elmer take a look at September's Mission. "We wanted to make an impact," says Elmer, by helping to start a project rather than donating to several that were already off the ground.
Before making a pitch to Elmer, Iken, Warner and Smith met at the Front Page to strategize about how to impress the E-Trade executive. They succeeded. Elmer has joined the project's board.
Over many lunches of quesadillas and chicken Caesar salads, it became clear to the planners that an online Sept. 11 memorial, done well, could help families grieve and give people who can't travel to a memorial in New York a chance to understand much more about the events of the day at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and on board the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania.
But there have been plenty of problems to troubleshoot, according to participants in the project who gathered around a long table at the Front Page the other day to recount their shared venture.
For starters, there's a long-awaited federal check. The Lower Manhattan Development Corp. awarded the Living Memorial a $297,000 grant early in the summer, but the money really is to come from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and it has yet to arrive. The group expected to have prototypes ready and to start building the memorial site in time for this year's Sept. 11 anniversary. Most everything has been delayed. The money is slated to arrive next month, but those at the Front Page joke that the check is "in the mail."
The group also has pondered how to incorporate corporate sponsorships. This isn't a golf tournament or sports arena where it would be appropriate to trumpet, "Brought to you by E-Trade." Instead, the plan is to have a subtle "partner's page" on the site. Smith says the group has had to turn down some offers because companies had strings attached to their support.
Perhaps the greatest challenge ahead, one the group hashes out often, is how to handle all the differing views, requests and opinions of the family members of those who died. Each family will be invited to create a Web page about its loved one, including text, video and audio. Amy Smith says the relatives ultimately will define the entire project. "The whole point is giving family members control," she says. But some families may not want information posted in a public forum, and, Smith says, things will get complicated if a mother, wife and brother of a victim disagree about how to memorialize their relative online.
Holdren of Twin-Soft agrees that human nature and not technology will provide the biggest challenges to the site. Her company has built Web portals for the Defense Department and the National Football League, she says, and she knows how to plan for circumstances such as the high volume of site visits expected around the Sept. 11 anniversary each year. What's less certain, she says, is how to plan for a group of people weighing in with very different personalities and levels of understanding of technology. "It's a disparate community of interest," Holdren says.
The group is now putting together committees, which will include family members, to address the options and make final decisions over the next few months. For now, McCool has designed a page at www.911livingmemorial.org where people can register for more information and learn how to get involved. In January, a public meeting will be held in New York to gather people face to face and solicit ideas.
For the group that has gathered at Ballston, a big challenge in the year ahead will be finding time to continue work on the project. Warner, Smith and the E-Trade executives are doing the work for free, although Twin-Soft will be paid. As time and money have become tighter, there have been fewer meetings at the Front Page, Smith says. Just as the Living Memorial is based in cyberspace, more of its planning will be done by e-mail and teleconference, virtual bring-your-own-lunch get-togethers.
Shannon Henry writes about Washington's technology culture every other Thursday. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.