Anybody who's every struggled up Route One north from the Washington Beltway knows Laurel.

A gauntlet of Golden Arches and a gang of Big Boys defending a bifurcated six-lane motherlode of motels, a garden of gas stations, a surfeit of sub shops, 7-Elevens and sleaze.

Plastic, neon, strip-zoned America. Not the sort of place that would ordinarily prompt the Chamber of Commerce to put on a two-day extravaganza called "Discover Laurel."

But Joe Edwards is planning to do just that next April. The Laurel Chamber's guided tour of the Route One corridor will be an invitation-only affair, mostly for millionaires or the people who manage millionaires' money by investing it in office buildings, industrial parks, housing projects.

Edwards wants to show that the aging, apparently arteriosclerotic Route One is in fact the healthy aorta of one of the most active business corridors in the Washington area.

He'll point out the tract just off Route One where developers are going to build $150,000 town houses for one of the most expensive developments in Prince George's County, then drive north past Amandale -- the Christian Brothers' roadside retreat that's supposed to become a research park -- and show off half a dozen major industrial development sites.

A second-rate road ever since the Interstates were built, Route One is finally being born again after decades of decay.

Today indications of revival peek through the billboards lining the road that runs diagonally through the District of Columbia like an arrow through a Valentine heart.

At the southern end, where the arrow pokes into Fairfax County, a task force of citizens, government officials and business groups is being formed to direct development.

"For so long, the county has forgotten we exist," complained community activist Mary Thonen, "They looked at Route 66, Route 50 and just neglected Route One."

Now Thonen is helping put together a coalition to upgrade the 7 1/2 miles of road between the Beltway and Fort Belvoir, known for the only "adult book stores" and topless joints in Fairfax County, as well as the largest collection of fast-food and fuel outlets south of Laurel.

"My reaction to Route One in Fairfax County is that they should be darn happy they have it, when you consider what it looks like in Laurel," said Fairfax planner Dick Hecht.

"There's an image problem, but it's really not a bad area at all," says the co-chairman of the coalition, James Peterson, who is executive director of the National Council for Urban Economic Development.

Drawing on his professional experience, Peterson suggested making Route One a model for suburban renewal by trying a technique that has been used extensively for urban upgrading, but has rarely, if ever, been utilized outside central cities.

The idea is to form an economic development corporation, a private nonprofit agency that could develop a plan for the area and put together public and private financing to implement it, Peterson explained.

"Economic development corporations have been the traditional vehicle for this sort of thing in urban areas, the idea that it could be transferred to suburban commercial districts is something we're going to explore," he said.

The lack of large tracts that can be developed is one of the biggest difficulties to rebuilding along the Fairfax corridor, he added, and one job for the corporation might be to buy land and assemble a parcel big enough for a major shopping, housing or office development.

But planning is the first priority, Peterson stressed, and ironically planning is responsible for what Route One is today, both north and south of Washington.

That 7 1/2-mile strip through Fairfax County is no accident, said county planner Hecht. "Strip zoning was considered to be good planning when this area was being developed; it was the state of the art."

The idea was to separate business and residential uses and restrict commerce to the roadsides. Along that stretch of the road, a 250-foot strip down either side is zoned for commercial use, and everything outside that strip is reserved for dwellings.

Trouble is, Hecht explained, that on a 250-foot deep lot, about the only thing that can be built is a gas station, a burger stand or a strip shopping center with parking in front. By the time room is taken out for a service road in front and a buffer across the back to protect the neighboring residences, there's not enough room for a major store or an office building, unless it's built three blocks long and 100 feet wide.

Current planning philosophy calls for clustering stores, shops and offices in what used to be called neighborhoods but are now referred to as "nodes".

"By getting higher quality development at nodes along the route, we can change the character of the whole strip," said Peterson.

The present personality of the highway, he added, is evident in a stretch of Route One through Laurel on the other side of Washington, which was made obsolete by the Interstate and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

Though both sections are visually vulgar and difficult to drive, there are important differences between the Prince George's and Fairfax corridors.

While the lack of large developable areas is a deterrent to development in the Virginia corridor, Prince George's has half a dozen major pieces of land suitable for huge office, residential or industrial projects, said Jim Threat, marketing chief for the Prince George's economic development agency. t

Route One through Fairfax is almost totally isolated from the parallel interstate and parkway, because there are very few East-West roads; the only cross routes are on residential streets. Prince George's has an established network of cross highways that feed traffic freely across a corridor that stretches from I-95 to Maryland Highway 301.

As a result, Prince George's can plan development for a wide band, while Fairfax must concentrate on a narrow strip.

Communities in Prince George's County also qualify for federal neighborhood renewal grants that are expected to be used to upgrade sections of Route One in Mount Rainier and other commercial zones inside the Beltway. Fairfax is too affluent to get that kind of money, which can be used to fix up the facades of buildings, add street-scaping, lighting and planting, and generally spruce up roadside business districts.

Even Laurel -- everybody's example of what's wrong with Route One -- has some advantages over Fairfax. One is the Laurel Shopping Center, a conglomeration of old strip centers in an enclosed mall with Montgomery Ward, J.C. Penney, lots of little shops and a new branch of The Hecht Company under construction.

Though it still bears the stigma of the place where George Wallace was shot, the Laurel Center "is evolving into an important regional shopping center," said Joe Edwards, head of the Laurel Chamber of Commerce. "Except for Columbia, there's no competition."

The facades built to tie together the disparate structures of the Laurel Center may not win any architectural awards, but behind the timbered entry, most of the shops are open and full of shoppers these days. In contrast, Route One in Fairfax boasts a dramatic, industrial-style shopping center renovation that is stunning from the highway, and even more stunning inside -- because three-quarters of the stores are vacant.

Creating a regional shopping area out of the wilderness of drive-ins and discount stores is a major goal of the Fairfax group. K mart, Woolco and Memco are the closest things to up-scale retailers in that neighborhood, forcing residents of the affluent residential areas to shop in the I-95 corridor. Community leader Thonen admits many Mount Vernon residents "won't shop on Route One because it's so ugly," -- an objection that deters merchants as well.

The Hybla Valley shoppng center might be given the same kind of upgrading that Laurel Center got, but the surrounding mobile home parks are not the sort of neighbors that attract boutiques and department stores.

Laurel also boasts a larger, regional Chamber of Commerce than the Route One segment in Fairfax. In Prince George's, Route One is the main street of the north-south corridor and the Laurel Chamber is the hometown trade association, with more than a dozen people on the payroll. But in Fairfax, Route One is the dividing line between the predominantly residential Lee and Mount Vernon Districts, making it difficult for the local business group to take the lead in development.

But Route One north and south of the Beltway is still the same road and the same historic and economic forces are influencing its future. Both Fairfax and Prince George's development officials talk of exploiting and channeling those forces rather than trying to push back the tide.

The continuing economic expansion of the Washington market is the factor that is driving the revitalization of Route One, pushing people, offices and stores into the suburbs and making the roadsides too valuable to be left fallow.

Capitol Hill is only minutes away from either section of the highway by car and will be even closer when the Metro subway is completed. Two stations will open next year along the Fairfax corridor and several are planned for this part of Prince George's in the future.

Metro will bust out of the Beltway first at Huntington, just south of Alexandria and already that upper end of the Route One corridor is booming. Within walking distance of the subway station, builder Giuseppe Cecchi is putting up a 1,000-unit high-rise condominium.

Like the $150,000 town houses being built in Laurel, those apartments will bring in the kind of two-income families who want to spend their money on something besides Big Macs. If that affluence can trickle down Route One, the old Boston Post Road could again become a major corridor of commerce.