Torpedo Factory study attracts renewed debate

Torpedo Factory study attracts renewed debate
Torpedo Factory Art Center (File photo)

By James Cullum (Photo/James Cullum)

A recent study by a respected economist commissioned by the Torpedo Factory Artists’ Association argues that the Torpedo Factory Art Center is the single most important tourist attraction in the city. But local government and tourism officials dispute the methodology behind the report.

The study, which said that the city’s tourism industry has fallen short of its potential, was conducted by economist Stephen Fuller of George Mason University without collaboration or consultation with relevant government and business officials, detractors of the study argued.

“I think none of us were in contact with Mr. Fuller while he was compiling his data,” said Diane Ruggiero, deputy director of the city’s department of recreation, parks and cultural activities. “I disagree that the buildings are run poorly. We take full responsibility with the building, and we’ve only been running it since October. … It’s a building that gets 500,000 visitors a year and a lot of that is bathroom use. We work very hard to keep those clean.”

Torpedo Factory artists have been in a dispute with city and art center leaders over how the site should be governed going forward for nearly a year, after city councilors ordered an analysis of the city-owned facility’s impact before agreeing to renegotiate its lease to allow center leaders to pay for renovations.

In the report, Fuller argues that the Torpedo Factory needs better management and programming to capitalize on its status as a tourism hub.

“The Torpedo Factory is the city’s most important single tourist attraction,” Fuller wrote. “To achieve the Torpedo Factory’s full potential as a magnet for out-of-town visitors, it must become more extroverted in its operations.

“This may be achieved through improved management and programming of its public spaces, initiating joint activities with other tourist-serving organizations in hosting events outside the Torpedo Factory building on adjacent deck space and elsewhere in the city, and by more effectively publicizing the featured events, exhibitions, educational functions and other activities.”

The Torpedo Factory Artists’ Association commissioned the study and doesn’t like the way the city has managed the 43-year-old art center since it took over last summer.

“It takes years to build a reputation and no time at all to ruin it,” said Abbey Alison McClain, director of the artists’ association. “The city has been running the Torpedo Factory for six months and everything has gotten worse. The bathrooms are dirtier. There are more blank wall spaces, because the city has to create a procedure to put something on the walls.

“We’re not all hippies. The artists aren’t here just because they like to paint. They have to sell their art in a tough economy, pay rent, do programming and get the word out. The gift shop wasn’t open for months and two city-operated studios closed.”

The city’s department of recreation, parks and cultural activities took over management of the Torpedo Factory last summer after the dissolution of the five-year-old center nonprofit management board. The city is asking the public for input on its so-called “four-pillar plan,” which outlines management of the center by an independent five-to-seven member board approved by the Alexandria Commission for the Arts, a “fully realized” first floor to increase visitation and generate buzz, broadening and diversifying the center’s financial support with the establishment of a public-private partnership for fundraising and an expanded artist residency program to allow for short, medium and long-term leases.

Fuller’s study, conducted last fall and released this month, determined that the center generates $35.2 million in direct spending by Torpedo Factory visitors, and that the city receives $47 million a year from associated transactions. He found that 97 percent of center visitors also spent money in Old Town and that out-of-town visitors spent an average of $92.88 per day in Alexandria.

“With growing competition from other jurisdictions in the Washington region and changing tourist tastes, Alexandria’s tourist industry has not kept pace with the growth of the city’s other major sectors,” Fuller wrote. “The long-term decline in visitation to the Torpedo Factory between 1994 and 2007 and recent slow recovery reflect on the city’s broad base of visitor attractions and the ability to maintain and increase their competitive position in the region’s tourist market.”

Patricia Washington, president and CEO of the city’s tourism bureau, Visit Alexandria, cited figures from the Virginia Tourism Corporation that show the city brought in 3.5 million visitors and $771 million in tourism dollars during the 2016 fiscal year.

“Torpedo factory visitors represent 4 percent of the visitor spending in Alexandria,” she said. “Art centers across the country are having to reinvent themselves [in light of] the changing pace of visitors, that millennials are the biggest generation right now. With the changing trends and tastes and visitors, the Torpedo Factory has to up its game against competition.”

Vito Fiore, director of marketing and research for Visit Alexandria, said that the Torpedo Factory is a top attraction, but it is not the only factor in drawing visitors to the city.

“Our research shows that people chose Alexandria because of our restaurants, accessibility, walkability, access to D.C., historic ambiance and atmosphere,” he said. “The art and gallery scene were not among the top ten reasons. However, once they’re here, the Torpedo Factory is one of the top places people went to.”