It's never been a secret, but you may not have gotten the word: When the Hecht Co. opens its new flagship store Thursday at 12th and G streets NW, it will be Hecht's Metro Center.

Several months ago, neighboring and competing Woodward & Lothrop changed its own flagship store's advertising from "Downtown" to "Metro Center." When Metro Scene contacted him, Woodies' chairman Edwin K. Hoffman voiced the since-realized hope that Hecht's would adopt the same name. Hoffman embraced the retailing industry's wisdom that a grouping of stores -- a critical mass, as it were, as in many suburban malls -- draws more customers for all than a store standing isolated.

A lot of folk derided the transit authority when it tagged its main downtown junction with the invented Metro Center name, but clearly it's taking on an accepted double meaning: the central junction of the Metro transit system and, from a retailing standpoint, a true metropolitan center.

Why else would Hecht's build there, as its president, Irwin Zazulia, related to a group of reporters yesterday, "the largest free-standing department store built in America since World War II"? (Some larger ones have been built in suburban malls.)

Hecht's chairman, J. Warren Harris, made another point: The new $40 million store replacing the one on Seventh Street represents "our tremendous confidence in the future of downtown Washington . . . . If anything," he continued, economic consultants underestimated "the dynamic growth that will take place."

Suffice to say, Hecht's new store is gorgeous. You'll doubtless read more about it in coming days.

A personal memoir here is reasonable. In the early 1960s, this newspaper assigned me to cover the bootstrap efforts by Washington businesses to nurse the old downtown (from roughly Sixth to 15th streets NW) back to health. It was then in a seemingly bottomless downward spiral.

An organization, known popularly as Downtown Progress, was formed. Among its leaders, in addition to retailers with obvious direct concerns, were the late Robert Baker, chairman of American Security Bank; John W. Sweeterman, then the publisher of The Washington Post, and a congenitally optimistic executive director, Knox Banner, recruited from Little Rock.

For a long time, it seemed that those seeking downtown's rebirth were spitting into the wind. Minor victories were trumpeted as major triumphs. Their confidence was to pay off much later as a lot of things came together: Washington's economic emergence as a top-ranked city, the construction of Metro, the Pennsylvania Avenue redevelopment and the rebirth of community confidence. Hecht's Metro Center, for now, is a crown jewel.