"Alexandria wanted us and D.C. didn't," explained Jean Statler, director of public affairs at the American Trucking Association, about the organization's 1984 move across the river.

Yet, after two years of commuting, the 250 employes at ATA have expressed a desire to move back across the Potomac to be closer to Capitol Hill -- the lobbying group's lifeblood.

"It's not the economics, it's the time factor," said Statler, who joined the association in 1984 after a major leadership turnover.

The ability to conduct impromptu meetings with Congress and Capitol Hill staffers is what Steve Saine, ATA's vice president of finance and administration, gave as the reason for the group's renewed interest in the District.

Saine said he has been talking to D.C. developers, but has yet to hear from anyone in the District government.

The ATA's stance could give the long-planned, but newly formed, Association Development Council of Washington , an early victory. A year ago, Mayor Marion Barry announced that city officials had created the council to attract associations to the area and to keep those already here happy.

The council has emerged, a year later, as a nonprofit public/private partnership. According to its bylaws, associations offer greater employment opportunities, build the tax base and stimulate the economic growth of Washington.

"There is a knowledge, from the mayor on down, that associations are a vital economic part of this city," said John Vickerman, president of the council, who proposed the group's creation.

But it has been only four years since the ATA and the D.C. government began battling over zoning for additional parking and office space at the ATA's old 1616 P St. NW address.

The ATA gave up and sold its building to move to Alexandria, which had been "aggressively" seeking to increase its association population.

In 1985, a national magazine dubbed Alexandria an "association boom-town" that was attracting nonprofits with the lure of affordable industrial-revenue bonds along with its "quaint environs." Association Trends newspaper figures show that the District lost almost 100 associations in 1985, while Alexandria gained more than 103 in four years.

"There has been a perception that in the past we were not interested in helping associations, or that other municipalities were more interested in helping them, but this group will change all that," said Curtis McClinton, deputy mayor for economic development and a founding member of the council.

"We want to retain all types of businesses," he said.

McClinton said he was aware of several other groups in addition to the ATA that were contemplating moving back into the District.

And he added that the council would be prepared to act on their requests. McClinton referred to the possibility of using cooperative and condominium ownership to enable several groups to live under one roof, and also mentioned Riverview Center, a piece of land in Southwest Washington that the District is considering zoning for nonprofits only.

"Equity participation and long-term rent stability" is what associations are seeking, said Sam Hellier, head of Office Relocation Service, a five-year-old McLean consulting firm. The company helps organizations establish objectives and target possible sites for relocation.

In the past five years, it has helped 70 organizations move, 12 of which were associations.

Three of these moved from the District to Virginia, eight found new spots inside the city limits and one stayed in Virginia, Hellier said.

He added that it is easier for small groups to own parcels of land outside the city, but for many associations the prestige of a Washington address is more important.

The council will make its debut at the upcoming trade show of the American Society of Association Executives in Washington next month.

The booth will be run by a selection of people from the 21 businesses and two associations on the council's board, representing a range of industries from real estate to convention-supply companies.

According to Vickerman, the council will use the trade show to collect names of nonprofit groups that are considering moving out of New York. It will then contact the organizations and offer the "red-carpet tour of Washington, D.C."

After New York, other major association cities will be targeted in the same way, according to the council's game plan.

And if the District is going to remain "the nation's association capital," as McClinton called it, the ATA's decision may be the council's most important test.