Two dozen corporate, philanthropic and political heavyweights have signed on as members of Washington's new Millennium & Bicentennial Commission, a group intent on turning the city's upcoming 200th anniversary as the nation's capital into a milestone of lasting value.

"2000 in Washington will be a year of ongoing cultural promotion, artistic events and historical stories," declares a sleek brochure signed by commission Chairman James V. Kimsey, founder and chairman emeritus of America Online Inc. It makes clear that the effort will be "a massive undertaking" with an equally imposing goal: "to forever change the image of the city."

The men and women Kimsey has recruited come from Washington and the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. From Franklin D. Raines, chief executive of Fannie Mae, to J.W. Marriott, chief executive of the company that bears his name, "they all have a strong interest in helping the District," Kimsey said.

The year-long commemoration may mean star-spangled fireworks and, according to the promotional brochure, historic trails projects, artists' markets in the parks and lunch-time lectures downtown and in the neighborhoods. Yet it's as likely to focus on endeavors that could ensure a sustained renaissance, such as nuts-and-bolts support of District schools.

"It is a wonderful opportunity to have a catalytic event," said Kimsey, who expects commission members to lend their names, brains and energy as well as contribute to a "war chest." While a major marketing and publicity push is in the works, with event banners, media advertisements and souvenirs, corporate sponsorship is intended to underwrite the majority of the program.

The campaign will not officially debut until after New Year's Day, and no one has given a specific figure for a fund-raising goal. Kimsey's target: "I'm going to try and raise as much money as I can."

Part of the funds will bankroll a two-day Constitution Avenue "Main Street Millennium" that city organizers expect to cost nearly $1 million. With some cash in hand from early sponsors, they have begun signing contracts with performers and leasing tents and other equipment for the festival on Dec. 31 and Jan. 1. Other city accounts might be temporarily diverted to help cover initial expenses, though officials say they hope that won't be necessary.

Unlike other major cities, which have a minimal federal presence, Washington has less tradition of corporate and philanthropic coming-together for a single civic goal.

But in recent years, as power has shifted from the city to the suburbs, from the federal government to the private sector, leaders increasing have recognized that the region is only as strong as its center.

"All of this is essential to make Washington a city of the millennium and not a city of the past," commission member Thomas J. Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said yesterday.

Janet Howard, vice president of international diplomatic relations for Coca-Cola Co. and also a commission member, said, "It shows business leaders and people from all walks of life are pulling together."

The group includes such area VIPs as Steve Case, AOL's chief executive; former Senate majority leader Robert J. Dole, now president of the Federal City Council; W. Russell Ramsey, president of the investment firm Friedman, Billings, Ramsey Group Inc.; Donald E. Graham, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of The Washington Post Co.; Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.); and U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.).

Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) has high expectations for the commission, which he believes will "foster a real sense of respect for our city and sketch a vision for our city into the next century."

By Kimsey's own admission, the District should have started planning for its bicentennial--noting when President John Adams and a fledgling Congress moved from Philadelphia to Washington--at least two years ago. "This has been a fractured, tortured and in many ways crippled city," he said. "It's not been celebrated as the nation's capital."

Ernst Volgenau, president of the Northern Virginia high-tech company SRA International Inc., is as committed to changing that as other commission members. It's why, when Kimsey came calling, Volgenau said yes.

"We who are the closest neighbors have an obligation," he said yesterday. "I hope that coming out of this is a certain impetus toward lasting improvements."

CAPTION: James V. Kimsey, chairman emeritus of America Online Inc., is heading the Millennium & Bicentennial Commission.