The construction site on the other side of the Potomac River can be deceptive. From the docks outside of the Torpedo Factory, the cranes are often mistaken as part of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project. But several of those cranes are building something else entirely — a 300-acre “waterfront destination” known as National Harbor. Developed by the Fairfax-based Peterson Companies, the 1.25-mile stretch of Prince George’s County will be dominated by an 18-story, 1.65-acre multi-level atrium with views of the Potomac River and Old Town Alexandria.
But what will people staying there see?
That was the question on the minds of city leaders as they assembled for a brainstorming session aboard the Cherry Blossom earlier this week. Sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, the event was called “Don’t Miss the Boat,” even though the restored Victorian sternwheeler remained safely docked outside the Torpedo Factory. Organizers billed the meeting as an opportunity to think outside the box and come up with “slam-dunk ideas” for making sure that Alexandria would be able to successfully ride the waves created by National Harbor. Rick Dorman, chairman of the chamber, told participants to think big.
“We want to build a vision,” he told attendees before dividing attendees into groups for several roundtable discussions. “We need to talk about how we can make this work.”
Some of the slam-dunk ideas were creative, such as making sure that Alexandria was marketed on the cable television channels that hotel guests would be viewing in their rooms. Others ideas have been gaining steam for months, like creating a new marketing slogan that would sell the historic aspects of the city. One idea was controversial, prompting uneasy glances across the first-floor deck of the riverboat: marketing Old Town separately from Alexandria under the theory that National Harbor tourists would not be interested in Del Ray or the west end.
“All ideas are good ideas,” said Jan Day Gravel, acting president of the chamber, when the suggestion prompted hushed conversations toward the back of the room. “These are all issues we need to think about.”
CITY LEADERS SAY that responding to National Harbor is a challenge wrapped in an opportunity surrounded by a million questions: What should the waterfront look like from the river? Where will they use the restroom? How will participants of the pharmaceutical convention find out about the Apothecary Museum? Will a little red trolley take them to businesses on Upper King Street?
“We want to do this right, and we’ve only got one shot at making sure we’re prepared for this,” Mayor Bill Euille told participants. “Once these people get here, we’ve got to get them to our restaurants and museums.”
Last month, the City Council took the first step toward the initial stages of planning by approving the Torpedo Factory’s north pier — known as “Commercial 1 Berth 7” — as the interim location for water taxis operated by the Potomac Riverboat Company. Charlotte Hall, vice president of the company, told attendees of the “Don’t Miss the Boat” event that she plans to have two boats, each with room for 99 passengers on a 30-minute schedule from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
“We have a gateway,” said Hall, who donated the use of the Cherry Blossom for the event. “And that’s the river.”
DEPUTY CITY MANAGER Mark Jinks said that the city government will be looking to create more consistency with the hours of operation for businesses along the King Street corridor, many of which have vastly differing schedules. Mayor Euille said that the city is in the process of creating new banners that will add color along the waterfront and King Street, creating an opportunity to incorporate the city’s new marketing scheme. And Aimee Vosper, landscape architect supervisor with the city government, said that the Department of Parks and Recreation is looking at simple ideas with complex solutions, like finding a way to remove the debris that collects along the waterfront.
“We’re not going to fix anything with roundtable discussions,” said Ibon Iraola. marketing office manager at Washington Suites Alexandria. “If the city is not willing to spend money, nothing is going to happen.”
Jinks said that this year’s budget includes $100,000 for initiatives related to National Harbor and $200,000 for a project to create a new shuttle service along King Street. Euille added that the city was committed to doing “whatever is necessary” to make sure it was working in concert with the business community to come up with ideas on how to best capitalize on crowds that will soon arrive at National Harbor, which has already booked guests through 2012. And Vosper said that the parks along the waterfront must act as a welcoming mat to visiting guests.
“You can see the Masonic Temple from almost every angle at National Harbor,” Euille said. “So our challenge is to get them to come over here and see it.”