Riding a wave of optimism about downtown Washington the D.C. Chamber of Commerce has begun a major membership campaign intended to make it the dominant voice for the district's business community.

The chamber long has been the weak stepsister to the Metropolitan Washington Board of Trade, but directors say they see a chance for the group to come into its own as a result both of a favorable economic outlook for the downtown and the advent of home rule.

"We've always been looked on as a minority group," said James Denson, the chamber's executive vice president. "That's changing."

It's changing in part because the mood of the downtown retail district is cheerier, said Denson.

Plans for a convention center, redevelopment of impoverished neighborhoods, and higher incomes for the city's minority groups all have contributed to this optimism.

Also, construction of the Metro subway system -- which turned some downtown streets into boardwalks and disrupted shopping for several years --ple are returning to shop. Once the Metro's suburban stations open, district merchants expect many more shoppers will be coming into the city.

The membership drive already is showing dividends. The number of paying members has increased from 500 to "somewhere around 650," Denson said. Dues average about $100 per member.