The organization that represents association managers across the country has moved into new downtown headquarters eight years after it faced a local brouhaha when it considered developing a site adjoining Dulles Airport.

No one is happier about that change of heart than the group's own chief executive. "Boy am I thankful that didn't work out," said James P. Low, president of the American Society of Association Executives. "This building is now a symbol of the association world in this city. If we were out there, we might as well be in Baltimore."

ASAE, with 8000 members representing 6000 organizations, has now moved into its new building at 1575 I St. NW, a facility that the society hopes will become a focal point for the continually increasing association presence in Washington. About one fourth of the ASAE membership is situated here in a city with about 60,000 association personnel.

The showpiece of the $11 million ASAE building, which was jointly developed by the group, Southern Railway Co., the owner of the land, and the Oliver T. Carr Co., is expected to be a conference center, available to tenants and others for meetings, lectures and other programs.

The $300,000 conference center, with 80 seats in a theater setting, could hold as many as 300 people and can also be divided into a board room and catering hall, when it is ready for use in April.

The 5000-square-foot facility was built largely with contributions by individuals and trade groups. For $1,000 a plaque dedicating a chair could be purchased and for $2,000 a group could buy a wall plaque. Even some of the largest hotel chains contributed to the effort, even though the center could take meetings trade from downtown hotels.

In 1972, ASAE seriously considered moving from downtown to a huge tract near Dulles. Sheraton Hotels already have committed itself to building a hotel at the site. But opposition from District business leaders, a critical editorial in The Washington Post, and problems working out access to the site with the airport's management put an end to those plans.The I Street site was chosen three years ago.

Now, with rising gasoline prices taxing commuters' pocketbooks and the increasing importance of federal lobbying taxing the resources of association members, the choice downtown location, across the street from a subway stop and only blocks from government offices, restaurants, and hotels, looks better than ever.

Further, the new ASAE headquarters will focus even more attention on downtown when it hosts ASAE's annual convention this summer, bringing 4,000 delegates to town. Low said the gather, which brings meeting planners together to participate in what the group hopes will be a model convention, will bring millions of dollars of convention business to the District.

ASAE offers it members a variety of services, essentially helping association managers perform their work more efficiently. The society provides communications, education, membership and meeting advice, runs a job placement service and publishes two magazines.

Like its member groups, ASAE is growing dramatically. Fifteen years ago, the group had 1,900 members and a budget of about $200,000. Today their budget is about $5.2 million, and the membership is increasing at a rate of about 10 percent a year.

The new 12-story building, which will house some offices of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Covington & Burling, the prestigious law firm, Southern Railway, and a variety of companies and other organizations, will not be fully occupied until spring, ASAE, whose 60 employees occupy the building's top floor, moved in last month.