The mighty Potomac returns to its commercial roots

The mighty Potomac returns to its commercial roots

In the spring of 1785, commissioners from Virginia and Maryland met in Old Town to discuss the commercial relations of the two states, finishing their business at Mount Vernon on March 28 with an agreement for freedom of trade and freedom of navigation of the Potomac River.
Last week — almost 222 years to the day — city officials and civic leaders gathered to discuss re-igniting commercial trade between the two states, with the April 1, 2008 launch of a water shuttle service which could bring as many as 360,000 tourists per year from National Harbor. The $2 billion project in Prince Georges County, billed as the largest convention hotel on the East Coast, could kick start centuries-old river commerce between the two states, officials said.
“We’re using Alexandria as a hub for river boat traffic, and hopefully that nautical hub will expand,” said Willem Pollock, owner of the Old Town-based Potomac Riverboat Company, which will be operating the 99-seat water taxis. “From here, you’ll have a variety of different tickets to travel anywhere along the river: to see the Mount Vernon Estate, the shops and restaurants of Georgetown, or catch the sound and light show at National Harbor.”
Speaking Friday at a Fun Side forum organized by the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association, Pollock said the water taxis will operate every half hour, allowing 20 minutes for passage and 10 minutes for loading time on each side.
The company is adding two alumnium-hulled boats to its fleet, at a cost of $1.5 million apiece. The new boats are being built in upstate New York and their design will be announced next week. “They’ll really capture the historic spirit of Alexandria,” Pollock said.
The boats will load and unload passengers at newly-built floating docks at National Harbor’s 700-foot pier jutting into the Potomac, and at the City Pier, beneath the Chart House Restaurant on the Alexandria waterfront. The city is considering requesting approval to build mini visitor centers at both sites.
Pollock’s water taxis already ferry about 50,000 tourists per year now between docks in Alexandria, Mount Vernon and Georgetown, so the company plans to add two more boats to his fleet, which can be added to service during peak periods, such as during lunch and dinner hours and on weekends. “If need be, we’ll switch boats and add capacity,” Pollock said.
Extending Historic District boundaries 
The city budget has allowed for nearly $300,000 to be spent over the next year for tourism readiness, including $200,000 for new transportation initiatives and $100,000 for new signage, benches and street clean-up of the Historic District. “There is money in the budget for the city to look as good as we can,” said Rich Baier, the city’s director of transportation and environmental services. “It takes just one person with an ice cream cone and we get the call.”
Baier said to imagine Alexandria as a “long urban mall” with pedestrian and transit linkages to the city’s retail corridors, including the West End and Del Ray. The city’s planning may include adding small DASH buses operating on 5-10 minute intervals, facilitating those linkages. Another option being considered is a gas-powered trolley system which would “loop” around the city, starting at the waterfront and running all day.
Boyd Walker, a historic preservationist, suggested that any transportation or waterfront planning should include North Old Town and the Bradley Metro station. “They’re should be good linkages to all parts of the city,” he offered.
City and civic officials are also hoping to jump-start its “Park Alexandria” initiative started in 1993, with a new logo, signage new coupon books. “We need a fresh look to this program,” said Jan Day Gravel, acting president of the Chamber of Commerce. “There’s abundant parking in the city, and we need to let tourists know where to find it.”
Discussion also centered around extending the boundaries of the Historic District. “Old Town doesn’t just stop at Washington Street,” said David Martin, president of the Old Town Business and Professional Association and owner of Goldworks on 1400 King Street. “People stop at my shop all the time and say, ‘where’s Old Town?'”
Gravel agreed. “When people mention Old Town, they tend to just think from Washington to the river,” she said. “We need to extend these boundaries further.”
The city plans to hold a transportation Forum on April 19 in the auditorium of the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office at 600 Dulany Street on the West End, in which the mayor and  City Council members plan to outline local and regional transportation initiatives
Over the past few weeks Baier met with officials in Prince Georges County, and he said the City hopes to bring over Maryland planning and tourism officials who “may not be as familiar with Alexandria.”  As such, the city is sponsoring a regional and local transportation summit here on April 15.
By working together, we are creating a win-win situation for all parties involved,” said Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson.
Prince George’s County has developed its own National Harbor Outreach Committee, and last week Johnson reached agreement on how to manage $3.5 million in contributions from the Fairfax-based Peterson Companies as part of the developer’s 10-year commitment to invest in local, nonprofit organizations.
New retail announced 
The Peterson Cos. also announced last week deals it’s inked with a half-dozen upscale restaurants it expects to open at National Harbor. These include Sequoia, McCormick & Schmick’s, Rosa Mexicano and Grace’s Fortune, which already have locations in the DC area.
Manhattan-based Gallagher’s Steak House also plans to open at the new town center, as well as two Los Angeles-based restaurants; “Ketchup,” offering nouveau American cuisine, and “Dolce Enoteca e Ristorante,” serving contemporary Italian food. The latter two eateries are aimed squarely at the decidedly hip, be-seen crowd.

It was also announced last week that Wyndham Vacation Ownership, the world’s largest vacation onwership company, had purchased the right to build an upscale 250-unit vacation ownership resort on two acres at National Harbor. Construction begins in fall 2007 with an anticipated opening in late 2009.

“We’ve been operating in the DC region with much success since 1999 with the opening of our first resort in Old Town Alexandria,” said Franz Hanning, the CEO of Wyndham Vacation Ownership. “We’re extremely excited to move forward with our plans to build another world-class resort here.”

The 11-story, luxury vacation resort will feature 250 condominium-style suite, including 42 opulent penthouse-style suites. Resort amenities may include a health and fitness club with indoor and outdoor heated swimming pools and an outdoor terrace with a spa, wading pool and pool cabana.  “Wyndham is a premier hospitality brand, so we’re thrilled they have taken this step to bring this resort to National Harbor,” said Tom Maskey, Senior Vice President of Retail for The Peterson Companies. “It will do nothing but enhance our fabulous, growing community.”