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Destination Northern Virginia?

Business and political leaders hope new Air and Space Museum will revive tourism industry, local economy.

Some seven months before the new National Air and Space Museum opens its mammoth hangar doors for the first time, hotels and restaurants in and around Reston and Herndon are preparing for a boost to their sagging bottom lines.

“It’s going to be the biggest thing to happen to tourism in Northern Virginia since George Washington built Mount Vernon,” said Del. Ken Plum (D-36).

Once completed, the Udvar-Hazy (pronounced OOD-var HAH-zee) Center will house some 80 percent of the Smithsonian’s aircraft and large space artifacts, many of which have been stored away for decades, museum officials said. The Smithsonian’s Washington museum on the National Mall holds about 10 percent of the collection. In addition to the large collection of aircraft, the new center will house a restoration shop, classrooms, archives, IMAX theater, restaurants and museum stores.

At a Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce luncheon May 8 in the Washington Dulles Airport Marriott, Lin Ezell, the project’s coordinator, updated local business leaders about the progress of the $311 million center, a center that Plum said would have a “major impact” on the area’s struggling economy.

Business and political leaders are optimistic that local hotels and restaurants, industries still reeling from the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and the war with Iraq, stand to benefit from their new neighbor. Located on a 176-acre parcel in the southeast corner of Washington Dulles International Airport, the Udvar-Hazy Center will be near the already busy intersection of Routes 28 and 50. With its minimalist décor, the 760,000-square-foot hangar will house everything from the Space Shuttle Discovery, the fleet’s first ship, to the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped H-bombs on Hiroshima that effectively ended World War II in the Pacific Theater.

In March, the Smithsonian began unloading artifacts into the museum when it welcomed the diminutive Piper J-3 Cub. Ultimately, more than 200 aircraft will be on display in the 10-story high, 300-yard-long aviation hangar. On April 30, museum officials watched as the first plane, a Loudenslager Stephens Akro Laser 200, was hung from the center’s rafters.

<b>A SUPPORTER</b> of the center, Michael Horwat, of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority, said the museum will be a welcome addition to Fairfax County. “You can see the magnitude of the impact that this will have on a still struggling economy,” he said.

“It should really help the weekend occupancy which is traditionally slower for a hotel that caters to the business traveler like us,” said Matt Dolan, a senior sales manager with the Dulles Marriott. “We are very excited about it. These days, any good news is welcome, to be honest.”

Many local business and political leaders say that the Udvar-Hazy Center, with its projected three million visitors a year, promises to lure tourists into restaurants, hotels and attractions in nearby Herndon, Reston and Loudoun County.

“We do expect that the Air and Space effort will lead our hotels and restaurants to a net gain,” said Richard Thoesen, the Herndon mayor. “I think it is very possible that we may develop opportunities for businesses and retail in town to enjoy the benefits of having such a major tourist attraction next door.”

“We are very excited about the possibilities. We finally have something in Northern Virginia — an attraction — that we can sell to our customers. We finally have something major,” said Troy Holt, a sales manager with the Dulles Hyatt. “With 9/11, the sniper and the war, it’s been a tough couple of years for our industry.”

While Eileen Curtis, president of the Herndon-Dulles Chamber, was not at last week’s Reston chamber event, she does consider herself one of the projects biggest supporters; but she admits that there is work to be done before downtown Herndon and other neighboring communities are flooded with the new Air and Space traffic. “The tourism community stands to gain from the museum,” she said. “We have to work hard to connect the dots between the Route 28 hangar and restaurants on Elden Street. Curtis said the chamber is in talks to find ways to bus visitors to Herndon or Reston. “Obviously, we need rail [to Dulles],” she said.

The promise of three million new visitors does not come without its challenges, however. “The test will be how we handle all those people without negatively affecting our neighbors,” Plum said.

The delegate said the state has invested more than $60 million in the new ramp at Route 28 to “keep traffic from backing up.”

“It is obvious that Route 28 is congested,” Ezell said. “But it will probably be a problem at the dinner-time rush not morning rush.”

With the addition of the center to the sparse Northern Virginia tourism landscape, Ezell said she anticipated many more tourists would choose to base their vacations in Virginia, rather than the District. There will be an express bus service between the two museums, she said. “Once they realize that Northern Virginia is a destination, many folks will stay here rather than in Washington,” Ezell predicted. “And I think people will find the hotels here more accessible and inexpensive. People just feel more comfortable and safer in Northern Virginia.”

To minimize traffic concerns and maximize the economic benefits from the new center, Plum said the state and county need make full use of both public and private bus and shuttle systems. “Not until we have rail to Dulles will we see the full effect,” the delegate said.