In the little town of Quantico, time stopped somewhere in the early 1960s.
Surrounded by Quantico Marine Corps Base on three sides and the Potomac River on the fourth, downtown Quantico is as clean as a Marine's belt buckle, but without the polish. The buildings are worn, and the signs on the storefronts are a mishmash of printed awnings and wooden placards. Main Street is dotted with aging red-white-and-blue barber poles.
However, town officials have ambitions, and they say things are about to change. A combination of circumstances, including the Pentagon's base realignment and closure plan to funnel 3,000 additional employees to the base, just might revitalize Quantico.
And with the help of federal, state and local money, "Q-town," whose barbershops, restaurants and uniform stores have catered to thousands of Marines since 1917, has embarked on a 10-year transformation plan that its supporters say could make it a destination riverfront town, attractive to tourists, office workers and Marines alike.
"We want to make it more appealing. Everybody else is doing it. We've got to show some improvements, too," said Mayor Mitchel P. Raftelis, referring to such towns as Fredericksburg and Manassas that have revitalized shopping and dining areas. At the very least, Quantico could offer a little more variety, he said.
The base closings report issued last month proposes the transfer of employees from Fort Belvoir and Andrews Air Force Base to Quantico, which straddles Prince William and Stafford counties, 35 miles south of Washington. Just north of the base, the National Museum of the Marine Corps will draw at least 300,000 visitors annually, boosters said. The museum will open its first phase -- a $50 million wing -- in November 2006. Virginia Railway Express and CSX Corp. recently refurbished and reopened the town's train station, which was closed 34 years ago for poor ridership, and VRE expects the current 500 riders a day to increase with the museum's opening.
The $1 million renovation of the train station was paid for mostly by federal funds -- money that the town and Prince William County are continuing to tap, along with state funds, to pay for Victorian lampposts and matching benches along Potomac Avenue, new awnings for storefronts, new sidewalks and a bicycle path.
Raftelis, 82, who has one year left in office, said he is hoping to get more dollars to build an amphitheater and a wharf on the Potomac.
But the big-ticket item is Route 1.
The road to Quantico runs three miles inside the Marine Corps base, and tight security requires people who are trying to get to the town to show identification at a checkpoint just off Route 1 before they drive there. During rush hour, cars and trucks can sit on Route 1 for an hour waiting to pass the checkpoint, causing backups not only along Route 1 but to nearby Interstate 95, as well.
Prince William Supervisor Maureen S. Caddigan (R-Dumfries), whose district includes the town, is leading a delegation of county officials to meet tomorrow with Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) to ask him to push for $50 million in additional federal funds to improve traffic flow in the area -- which will be vital if thousands of additional workers descend on the base.
The money would go toward an elevated traffic circle to allow vehicles to enter the base without causing backups onto Route 1.
In November 2006, Prince William voters also will be asked to approve a $75 million bond to widen part of Route 1 to six lanes.
"We have to come up with a plan on how we get people off of Route 1 and off of I-95 and onto the base," Caddigan said.
With just 561 residents counted in the 2000 Census and a $415,000 town budget, Quantico might seem undeserving of such expensive ventures, Raftelis said. But those census numbers are deceptive, he said. "We have a lot of what I call geographical bachelors," he said, referring to hundreds of Marines who have a permanent address outside the town of Quantico but spend the majority of their time in the town because they work at the base for long periods.
More businesses are on the way, he said, pointing to now-vacant buildings that will house four restaurants and the offices of several government contractors with plans to move to Quantico.
Already, General Java's Internet Cafe is sporting a new, trendier forest-green awning. Opened seven years ago, the coffee shop draws Marines to its hip atmosphere with the Web and gourmet coffee concoctions. Manager Josephine Shaw said that though people at first had doubts that the shop would succeed, "we get about 300 customers a day."
The Marines, who come from all walks of life, are looking for something more upscale, she said. "People talk about it all the time. If you can see beyond the old buildings, you know that this can be a little Occoquan," she said, referring to the nearby river town of about 800 residents whose quaint shops and restaurants are drawing visitors.
The vision is not far off. Before the Marines arrived in 1917, Quantico was a fishing town that attracted tourists to its picnic areas, beaches and a dance pavilion, according to a history of the town.
The owner of Roman's Pub, who likes to be called by her last name, Lee, said she is amazed that the town looks exactly as it did when she took over the business 10 years ago. What's more amazing are the recollections of customers, she said. "Everybody says that the place has looked like this for 30 or 40 years," she said. "It never changed."