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Economy Sputters Along

Tourism association finding ways to perk up business in city.

Just as tourism was beginning to show signs of a steady, sustained recovery from the 9/11 disaster, an impending war with Iraq may put it back into intensive care.

"The slowing economy is our biggest problem now," said Jo Anne Mitchell, executive director, Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association (ACVA). "We are still well below our banner year of 2000, but somewhat better than 2001."

That analysis is based on the three factors on which Alexandria tourism rests economically. They are the meals sales tax, retail sales tax, and accommodation tax.

"We are holding our own as compared to the region, but in many cases, business is still suffering," Mitchell said. "We've had several restaurants close in the last year, such as the Kingfish." Located at 1120 King St., it was an up and coming star in 2000.

Bruce Earle, former owner of "Kingfish Bar and Grill," blamed his misfortune on the convergence of four negative factors — "9/11; the stock market dive; the incredibly hot, dry summer of 2002; and the sniper attacks.

"This all happened within our first 13 months of business. If I had been more established, I probably could have weathered it. But not with a brand-new establishment and no regular clientele," Earle said.

He also noted, "One of the problems with Alexandria is that the tourists have to be given a better picture of what there is to do and see in this area. ACVA needs more help from the city. It's the only group having a real impact on tourism."

HOTELS ARE A mixed bag. Average daily room rates are still up, but occupancy is down about 10 percent, Mitchell acknowledged. "Revenue per room is about 4.5 percent above the 2002 figures, but still down significantly from 2001. We are still doing better than the region overall," she said.

ACVA receives a portion of its budget from a $1 room night tax, and this has suffered disproportionately in relation to hotel occupancy. "Hotel occupancy income does not necessarily translate to tax dollars," Mitchell explained. "A lot of the occupancy has been increased government business, and they don't pay the taxes."

This drop in hotel business was verified by Brian Thompson, president, Alexandria Hotel Association, and general manager, Hawthorne Suites, on North Van Dorn Street.

"We've had a lot of blood-letting. And the immediate future does not look good," he said.

"Hotels rely heavily on tour groups. These groups are very leery of coming to this area because of the impending conflict with Iraq. They don't want to book because of the guarantees they have to make and the possibility of forfeiting them," Thompson explained.

"This is being exacerbated by the fact that hotel rates in Alexandria have not dropped, and D.C.'s have. They are now very competitive with us. We enjoy some advantage in that people perceive us to be somewhat safer than D.C. in case of an attack. But D.C. still did somewhat better than us last month," Thompson noted.

"The snowstorm also hurt us badly. Our hotels lost hundreds of thousands of dollars," he acknowledged. "People just could not get here. We had to make refunds or suffer very negative publicity and backlash from tour operators and their customers."

Thompson's view of the approaching high tourist season was not optimistic. "I don't see anything out there on the positive side for the foreseeable future."

Income from meals tax in December, the last month for which figures are available, show a drop of $76,540 from the same month last year. They were down nearly $10,000 from December 2001, the year tourism took a nose dive.

Retail sales taxes plunged 15 percent in November for the present fiscal year. This was the highest for this reporting period and marked a 32-percent negative spread from the high for the 2003 fiscal year set in August.

TO PUMP SOME NEW life into the tourism money machine, ACVA has launched several endeavors. One is a proposed arts festival to be held in mid-September, and another is a comprehensive tourism experience built around Alexandria's role in the Civil War.

The arts festival proposes to bring in 300-plus artists and crafters from throughout the nation to stage a juried show Sept. 13 and 14. It calls for closing King Street from the 100 through the 400 block. ACVA hopes to generate $3.5 million in revenue.

In a letter dated Feb. 13 to Joan Menard, president, Torpedo Factory Artists Association — which has raised serious concerns about the event, and signed by festival co-chairs Adam Winer and Judith McVey, ACVA laid out its rationale for the event.

"ACVA has chosen to work with Howard Alan Events Ltd. because the firm has a proven record of organizing successful art shows that are attended by thousands of people in affluent destinations similar to Alexandria," according to the letter.

The economic benefits to the city, as perceived by ACVA, in addition to the $3.5 million "spent per weekend" include a 20- to 25-percent increase in local retail sales, 25-percent increase in restaurant business, and 40-percent increase in hotel business.

A panel discussion on the festival is scheduled for March 28, at ACVA's regular Fun Side Forum to be held at the new Marriott Residence Inn, 1456 Duke St., beginning at 8 a.m. Reservations can be made by calling 703-838-4200, Ext. 203.

THE CIVIL WAR experience is built around a new book authored by Jeremy J. Harvey, entitled, "Occupied City: Portrait of Civil War Alexandria." Harvey serves as ACVA's marketing communications manager.

Harvey noted, "Alexandria has never really presented itself as a Civil War destination. This will present the city to a whole new audience — Civil War buffs from throughout the nation."

This potential tourism bonanza is being marketed through direct mail to a variety of lists, advertising in history and heritage publications, and on AVCA's own E-Blast web site which is available to residents as well as tourists.

"We have a very wide promotion program. Even to Europe," said Laura Overstreet, ACVA deputy director. "We want visitors to stay longer and spend more," Harvey added.

On April 11 and 12, ACVA is planning a media preview weekend with a walking tour to many of the sites featured in the book. More than 300 press kits and invitations have been sent to travel industry publication representatives, according to Overstreet.

Coupled with all this, ACVA is promoting a new discount pass known as the "Liberty Pass." It is applicable to both Alexandria and District experiences and is available for sale at the Ramsey House Visitors Center or the Potomac Riverboat Company ticket office in Georgetown. It joins the two VIP passes and Key Pass previously introduced.