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Welcome to the Future

What will visitors from National Harbor see when they arrive in Alexandria?

Flash forward to next April and imagine that you have never been to Alexandria. You are staying at Maryland’s posh new Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center for a conference that has grown boring. In your hotel room, you see a one-minute commercial for Old Town. So you decide to catch a water taxi across the river and see "the fun side of the Potomac."

During the scenic trip across the river, you view a 10-minute infomercial about the historic colonial city. When the ship docks at the city marina, you see a series of kiosks displaying historic photographs of the city pointing you toward King Street. You happen upon a costumed interpreter portraying what city leaders call an "unsavory character" from Alexandria’s past — perhaps a bootlegger or a pirate — who leads you to a "discovery cart," where you see a display case containing historic fire-fighting equipment. Your interest is piqued, so you board a free trolley at the corner of Union Street and King Street and travel a few blocks west to visit the Friendship Firehouse Museum.

Welcome to the future, funded by City Council’s decision this week to spend $1.3 million on a series of initiatives to prepare the city for the April opening of National Harbor.

"As a result of this new opportunity to gain tourism business, as well as given the risk of losing existing business, it became clear that the city needed to undertake some activities to get ready for National Harbor’s potential impacts," wrote City Manager Jim Hartmann in his recommendation to fund the $1.3 program. "Whether or not National Harbor impacts the city will depend in part upon how the city of Alexandria prepares for what will certainly become a monumental shift in the tourism dynamic of this region."

LAST YEAR, Mayor Bill Euille asked the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce to convene a collaborate to begin preparing for the new 300-acre, mixed-use development now rising across the Potomac in Prince George’s County. The National Harbor Collaborative Work Group, as the team came to be known, began throwing ideas around almost immediately about marketing initiatives, marina improvements and tour-bus management. The effort culminated Monday night, as several collaborative members came to City Hall to support the $1.3 million plan.

"In many cases, the area around the city marina has been a back door," said Deputy City Manager Mark Jinks. "We want this area to be a front door."

A $118,865 marketing plan includes brochures, videos, advertising and expanding hours for the city’s visitor’s center, which will be open an additional three hours closing at 8 p.m. instead of its current 5 p.m. closing time. Improvements to the marina will include four informational kiosks ($62,699), 30 new planters with four season of plantings ($52,380), a shelter for water-taxi riders ($30,000), banners ($17,250), benches ($17,240), improvements to the food court bathrooms ($16,866), an awning for the food-court entrance ($11,520) and several new bollards ($7,200). The plan also calls for $484,094 to pay for additional lighting in dark corners around the marina, including the stairway in front of the Chart House, the pier adjacent to the Cherry Blossom, tree lights along King Street and a giant "wash light" to illuminate the Torpedo Factory.

"The wash light will show the Art Deco features of the Torpedo Factory, which are currently obscured in the darkness," said Rich Baier, director of the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services.

ONE OF THE main attractions of Alexandria is its history, and explaining the city’s past is at the center of the new National Harbor initiatives approved this week. The Office of Historic Alexandria has agreed to develop a series of "story boxes" containing museum artifacts that will be displayed on "discovery carts" that would act as advertisements for the city’s historic museums. Those interested in audio tours will be able to dial a telephone number and hear information on the city’s architecture, special events and visitor services. And a troupe of costumed performers will greet visitors as merchants, bakers, slaves, farmers, physicians, soldiers, potters and tavern keepers.

"Some of them would be unsavory characters associated with the city’s past," said J. Lance Mallamo, director of the Office of Historic Alexandria. "We want to use the streets as a living organism."

Mallamo also recommended relocating certain children’s programs to Market Square and the waterfront. For example, the Alexandria Archeology Museum will move its children’s programs from the third-floor Torpedo Factory site to the boardwalk outside during periods of high-tourist visitation. Gadsby’s Tavern will hold a children’s 18th-century program adjacent to Market Square. Visitors and residents will be able to easily traverse up and down King Street thanks to a new $700,000-a-year trolley service, approved by the City Council in September.

But the cost of the rubber-tire trolley service may end up higher than expected.

"The bidding deadline was this week, and it appears that the costs of the trolley will be higher than prior estimates," the city manager wrote in his recommendation for funding the initiatives. "If the costs for the core trolley service cannot fit within the budget, then other sources of funding the trolley will be considered, including the use of Northern Virginia Transportation Authority revenues which should start to be received by the city this fiscal year."

Vice Mayor Del Pepper said that when the allocations are finalized next month, city officials should fund all of the trolley service using the authority funding. She said this would free up city funds that could be used for other initiatives.

"We are going to need at least all the initiatives listed here — if not more," said Pepper. "And we need to hit the ground running."