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Negative Response Greets Final Hearing

Proposed visitors center's location draws concerns.

The crowd was small, but the intensity of the opinions of those present was not. Most had heard the report before. And at the conclusion of this final public airing, they remained unconvinced and unanimous about what they did not want.

What drew them to City Hall recently was the final public hearing on a proposed new visitors center, and, more particularly, where it should not be located.

Only 15 citizens attended the nearly three-hour session, which was spearheaded by Parter International Inc., the consulting firm hired by the city to analyze the perceived need for something more than the present center located in the Ramsey House on King Street.

Mark Jinks, assistant city manager for fiscal and financial affairs, explained, "Council commissioned a study to analyze if a new visitors center is needed. And, if so where should it be located."

He explained that Council's Legislative Committee will be presented with the final report from the consultants in December. This will be followed by a public hearing before City Council on Jan. 24, with a vote scheduled for Jan. 27.

Although under the aegis of Parter International Inc., the consultant is actually a team of five groups including Parter. The others are EDAW, an international urban planning group; Gorove-Slade Associates, a transportation planning firm; Gallagher & Associates, specialists in museum planning and exhibition design; and Powe.Jones Architects, a regional architecture and urban design firm that focuses on the national capital region.

MAKING THE FORMAL presentation at the recent session were Alan S. Parter, president, Parter International, and Gregory Powe, AIA, managing principal, Powe.Jones. The study began in September 2002, with a report published May 30, 2003.

Parter explained, "We were charged with whether a new visitors center was needed and, if so, where should it be located." He admitted they also delved into the question of whether or not Alexandrians actually wanted more tourists.

Primary to their research were a series of interviews with what Parter described as "stakeholders." These interviewees were chosen by the city and the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association (ACVA), according to Parter. Their input was buttressed by focus groups and questionnaires to some 300 motor-coach companies, he explained.

However, as pointed out by those attending the hearing, other than those unidentified interviewees who were part of the focus groups, the majority of others named in the report were either city officials or those with a vested interest in some element of the tourism industry. Of the 28 individuals listed, nearly half were directly affiliated with ACVA.

City resident Townsend A. Van Fleet noted, "Only two people on the entire list are pure citizens." His observation was echoed by the comment, "We still haven't asked the question of whether or not we want more tourism. We started this discussion with where a center should be, rather than if we need or want a new one."

The consultants, in their report, have concentrated on three potential sites, giving the pros and cons of each:

*Expand the existing Ramsey House to create a much more spacious and sophisticated center;

*Create a new center complex on Market Square by removing the present planters on each side and replacing them with two buildings of near equal square footage — one enclosed and the other in a open shed format;

*Create a new center in one of several possible locations in the general area of the King Street Metro station.

BASED ON THE variables presented in the report, the consultants' consensus leaned toward either expanding Ramsey House or creating a new center on Market Square Plaza. It was the latter that drew the unanimous ire of Thursday night's audience.

Poul Hertel emphasized, "One of the things many of us in this room have spent a lot of time fighting for over the years is historic preservation. In all the years I have been involved with various issues, I have never seen anything raise as much objection as the proposal to use Market Square for a visitors center.

"The objections throughout the civic community are overwhelmingly negative. It should be discarded." Hertel then asked Jinks if "the general consensus had not been overwhelmingly negative" to the Market Square concept. Jinks admitted, "It's been more negative than positive.

Hertel went on to note, "Tourism is important. But, the real question is what kind. You will have more tourists if you have the uniqueness that makes Old Town what it is."

Restaurant owner Pat Troy, who was on the side of increasing tourism, drew some objections when he asserted, "The residents of this city resent anything that can be done to build tourism." But he also spoke against locating a new center on Market Square.

"The Ramsey House is the perfect place for an expanded visitors center. Please do not touch Market Square," Troy said.

Powe, who admitted that it was his idea to place the new center on Market Square, pointed out his suggested design would actually consume less square footage than the present planters. He also argued that it would make Market Square more viable than its present configuration.

Those in attendance made a number of suggestions for other potential locations. Among them were the existing offices areas abutting Tavern Square and The Lyceum. Parter admitted these had been considered but were discounted for various reasons. His main argument against The Lyceum was that it was not centrally located.

This brought forth the observation, "Your definition of ‘centrally located’ is next to the Carlyle House. There's a great deal more to Old Town than that."

As he had done in previous sessions, Parter insisted, "The general rule of thumb, no matter what the locale, is to put the center where the visitors are." He explained that this was also a drawback to the Metro station area, where tourist time would be consumed getting to and from the main area of attraction for visitors.

PARTER ALSO MADE a point of explaining that Alexandria is not an ultimate destination. Most tourism here is a result of visitors coming to Washington and other sites such as Mount Vernon, according to Parter. "This is not meant to be a bus stop."

This led to the other main source of contention during the hearing — the impact of motor coaches on Alexandria's "quality of life" and "the type of tourists" they bring to the city.

"Hordes of buses do not enhance our quality of life," was emphasized to Parter and Powe.

"Bus management is an issue that needs to be addressed separately," said Julie Crenshaw. "This is marketing. What hasn't been discussed is what makes this a destination in the first place."

Van Fleet insisted, "No real case has been made to have a new visitors center."