It looked like the opening hoopla for any old shopping mall: four days of marching bands, oldies concerts and balloon drops.

But the debut of Dulles Town Center last month signaled more than commerce. It was a key moment in the transformation of the area around Dulles International Airport from nothing but forested hillocks to bona fide satellite city.

Gradually, nearby residents have begun calling the place by a name: "Dulles"--and they no longer mean just the airport.

"I think we're becoming our own town, just like Tysons Corner," said Norma McKenney, shopping at the mall with her son in tow.

With the 554-acre Dulles Town Center slated to include an office park and 1,100 homes in addition to the mall, it forms a natural nucleus for a swath of western Fairfax and eastern Loudoun that planners have begun to call self-sufficient. The area offers jobs, housing, schools, recreation and, now, its own regional shopping center.

"It's a place now," said Stephen Fuller, professor of public policy at George Mason University. "For many years, Dulles was the airport, the white elephant. It sort of sat off by itself, 12 miles off the Beltway. You never went there unless you had to. . . . It's now being viewed as its own area."

And many say the mall--with 130 shops, four department stores and plans for a 16-screen movie theater--is playing a big role in that transformation.

"It is a focal point in the community. It's that which binds the communities, because everyone wants to shop," said Loudoun Supervisor Lawrence S. Beerman II (R), who represents the magisterial district called Dulles.

Even before the shopping center arrived, companies near Dulles Airport had promoted giving the area a high-profile, recognizable name that would distinguish it, even abroad.

"Nobody outside the immediate area knows Vienna or McLean," said Jerry Gordon, president of the Fairfax Economic Development Authority. "Everybody knows Tysons. Dulles is getting that same cachet. Nobody knows Herndon or Sterling, but Dulles they know."

In the many housing developments that have spread like kudzu near the airport, residents, too, are starting to brag that they live in "Dulles"--a place apart from Sterling, Reston and Tysons.

In addition to having its own Zip code (20166), the area has about 60,000 residents, according to managers of Dulles area housing developments and the U.S. Postal Service, which keeps data on new addresses. Nearly half of the 26 schools that growing Loudoun County plans to open in the next decade are planned for sites within 10 miles of the airport. Fairfax County has just opened two schools and plans to build four more within five miles of the airport.

"The environment is cooler here" than other nearby suburbs, said Kwabena Asamoah, 30, a commissary worker at the airport who lives in an apartment community off the Dulles Toll Road.

He's one of hundreds of thirty-somethings and younger people drawn to the area by affordable, new apartment complexes where "hanging out" often means lolling by the pool or heading over to Dulles Town Center for dinner.

Bank teller Wayne Crossland, 20, a neighbor of Asamoah's, said he likes having "friends scattered around the complex" and being able to "stay in this little town and not go anywhere else."

It took years for all of the elements of the new town to fall into place.

First, the road grid, including the Dulles Greenway, the Dulles Toll Road and an improved Route 28, paved the way. A special tax--approved by Loudoun supervisors--financed the expansion of Route 28 to six lanes. "They were expecting the development to come to that area," Beerman said, "so they built the road as kind of a precursor."

Companies including America Online Inc., MCI WorldCom Inc. and UUNet Technologies Inc., MCI's Internet division, flocked to the area now known as the Dulles technology corridor.

The growth of Dulles has been fueled in part by those companies. Their campus-style office parks provide thousands of jobs for residents of the tidy subdivisions nearby. For the hundreds of temporary workers and consultants who descend on the area weekly, at least a dozen residential hotels have sprung up--many of them offering such amenities as grocery shopping services and outdoor recreation areas with pools and volleyball courts.

And more growth is expected. Signs advertising acreage for sale are everywhere along the main roads, which are crowded with concrete mixers and lumber trucks serving the booming construction.

But gaps exist. The place, as yet, does not have clearly defined boundaries. There's no dot on the map called "Dulles." The Dulles Zip code area wraps around the airport. But in the popular imagination, Dulles is larger.

"I kind of figure if you hear the planes, and if you see the planes, you must be living in Dulles," said Denise Fearson, who lives in Chantilly Highlands, a Fairfax community about a mile from the airport's boundaries.

As the identity of Dulles has solidified into a "full-service area," the habits of residents and visitors have changed.

A growing number of business travelers come in and out of Dulles Airport and never venture inside the Capital Beltway.

Sitting in the lobby of the Dulles Hyatt on a recent Sunday, Pablo Badorrey, 34, an engineer for Newbridge, an Argentine telecommunications firm, said he had spent two weeks shuttling between his hotel room and a nearby training center.

"I am not going to D.C.," Badorrey said. "I like this area. I feel comfortable and secure here. Everything I need is here."

Some residents--particularly some of the younger ones taking jobs at area tech firms--complain that there still isn't enough night life or cultural vibrancy to suit them. But others say that's changing quickly. With jobs nearby and now Dulles Town Center, their lives are increasingly centered in the area.

"It seems like just in the last year it's happened," said Bob McKenney, 41, a computer programmer at the National Association of Letter Carriers Health Benefit Plan in Ashburn and husband of Norma McKenney.

The McKenneys work and now shop less than five miles from home, something they could not have pulled off before the arrival of the mall.

The McKenneys say Dulles Town Center offers a welcome alternative to fighting the traffic into Tysons. In a direct pitch to Loudoun residents, and even those farther east near Reston, the mall's Bethesda-based developer, Lerner Enterprises, is promoting it as "the mall away from sprawl." Norman Rockwell illustrations adorn many of the mall advertisements aimed at a huge suburban family market.

Like other shoppers at the mall, Norma McKenney said she first went there out of curiosity, but now visits regularly and chooses it over what she calls "the other mall," referring to Tysons.

Not having to schlep to Tysons to shop will make life much more convenient, said Ronnie Teate, 38, a single mother of three who was buying sneakers for one of her sons at the mall recently.

"It does give the area a nice finish," she said.

"We don't hardly go anywhere other than here," Bob McKenney said. "We have everything we need."

Even a circus.

The Big Apple Circus--long a perennial of suburban life--announced recently that it is abandoning its former venues, Reston Town Center and Lake Fairfax Park.

This fall, it will play in a new location: Dulles Town Center.