RICHMOND -- Cashier Linda Gown isn't pointing any fingers, but she says that every year about the time the state legislators arrive here, the NyQuil disappears from the shelves of her 7-Eleven store.

"No, it isn't them stealing it. They're generally real polite," said Gown, whose store is just around the corner from the downtown Holiday Inn, a favorite resting place for the lawmakers.

For Gown, the arrival of legislators in their "monkey suits" and the disappearance of the cold medicine signify that the political season has begun.

Every January the city of Richmond dusts off the welcome mat for the 40 senators and 100 delegates of the General Assembly, a legion of legislative aides and more than 800 lobbyists. Hundreds more -- schoolchildren, social and community clubs, family members and friends -- visit the Capitol to watch lawmaking at work.

It's a lot for this city of 220,000 to swallow. And although local officials say some residents try to keep the proceedings at arm's length, businessmen near the Capitol couldn't be happier. Most blessed by legislative largess are the hotel managers, who compete for the blip of good business at a time of year that generally is disastrous for their trade.

Jeff D. Smith, president of the Retail Merchants Association of Greater Richmond, estimates that legislators and lobbyists spend $7.65 million on lodging, meals and incidentals -- a tie here, a toothbrush there -- during a 60-day session (the annual sessions are alternately 45 and 60 days; this year's session is 60 days). That doesn't count the large receptions, a few of which run tabs as high as $20,000, Smith said.

"We all look forward to this period," he said.

Welford Shumaker, general manager of the downtown Holiday Inn, said he reserves about 90 rooms for the lawmakers, their entourage and members of the press.

"One of our secrets is that we treat them like any other people, so they can feel comfortable and relax," he said. Part of that formula: "I don't discuss politics with them. I keep my opinions to myself."

For some, the increased business is a mixed blessing.

"Generally we find that we have a lot more runs to the Capitol and to the general office building" during the legislative session, said Phillip Tenney, president of Richmond Riders, which employs a small fleet of bicycle couriers. "We also find there are more limos in town so we have to be more careful. Those things are right big and they don't always see you coming in that rear-view mirror."

Chauffeur Greg Redford, who drives a shuttle van for the Jefferson Sheraton Hotel, said he's a lot busier during session, but prefers it because it gives him a chance to meet the lawmakers.

"I get a chance to talk to them one on one," he said. "They get to be my friends. It's like a reunion."

Aside from plumping local pocketbooks, the General Assembly serves as a classroom for students from all over the state.

Rita Koman, a government and history teacher at Osbourn High School in Manassas, brought 35 honor students here last week.

"We just finished a mock session in class with role-playing -- the students played U.S. senators," she said. "So they know what the process is, they know how it works." She said she finds the Richmond sessions more instructive than their federal counterparts because the state legislature moves quickly, taking up more than 1,800 bills in one session.

Rene Hensley, an Osbourn senior and student intern for Del. Harry J. Parrish (R-Manassas), said she "learned how state government really works. There's a lot of time wasted in {floor} debates. So many people say the same thing over and over again. But the committees seem to work pretty well."

Paul Ellsworth of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce said the annual migration of legislators and the resulting infusion of consumer dollars into the local economy has helped, though not driven, efforts to revive the city's downtown in the last decade.

"The legislature was here all the time that the downtown was deteriorating. It wasn't done for them or because of them," he said, citing the "development of the convention industry" as probably the main factor in the revitalization.

A cornerstone of the redevelopment is the Sixth Street Marketplace, a $25 million project a few blocks from the Capitol, with space for 100 shops and restaurants.

Though the project has drawn negative press because many shops have folded, Ellsworth said the criticisms are off the mark. He said small businesses there have experienced a failure rate of 20 percent, compared with 50 percent in the city as a whole. He said the figures demonstrate a strong public support that the General Assembly itself doesn't always enjoy.

"For most people in Richmond, {the legislature} is just there doing its business," he said. "I don't think the average person on the street knows that it's there or even cares."

For some residents, that's putting it mildly.

The legislators are "a bunch of rednecks," said Peter Glenn, a 42-year-old renovator who had stopped in for a quick beer at Soble's pub on Main Street. "I don't mean that in the crude or mean-spirited way. {The typical legislator} is an entrenched, inflexible human being. He's rigid and unwilling to experiment with new ideas."

B.J. Hobart, 37, a real estate developer, said she once dated a state delegate. But, she said, "I didn't keep track of {the legislature} then, either."