The pending arrival of the Metrorail system in Alexandria and the general increase in the Northern Virginia tourist industry has prompted Alexandria Mayor Charles E. Beatley Jr. to once again consider calling for the construction of a convention center in the city.
"It's an idea I had the last time I was in office," said Beatley, a Democrat who previously served as mayor from 1967 to 1976. "Nothing came of the idea then, I guess because the idea was premature. But now it might work."
Beatley cited the scheduled completion in 1981 of the Metrorail system, which will have two stops in the city, as one of the reasons for his renewed interest. When completed, the Blue line section of Metro will carry passengers from downtown Washington through Washington National Airport to Alexandria.
Additionally, the general increase in the Northern Virginia tourist industry, which went up an estimated 20 percent in both Alexandria and neighboring Arlington county last year, was another factor in his interest, he said.
"I like taking a long-range view of things," Beatley said this week. "I have not discussed it with the City Council, and I won't do so until I have more information. If the subject comes up this weekend at the "retreat" I might discuss it with them then."
Beatley and the six other council members were scheduled to spend the weekend at an informal meeting at Episcopal High School in Alexandria discussing the council's long-range goals and objectives.
Leonard Hickman, executive vice president of the Hotel Association of Washington, expressed some surprise at Beatley's idea."One would wonder about the need for another convention center in the area. But I would really have to know more about it to comment," he said.
Hickman said he was referring to the controversial four-square-block convention center proposed for downtown Washington. That center, which has been delayed by lawsuits, could accommodate up to 8,000 people. Its estimated construction cost is $99 million.
Beatley said the type of convention center he had in mind "might resemble" the considerably smaller one-block-square Pioneer Auditorium, in Reno, Nev., which Beatley visited several years ago. Opened in 1968 at a cost of $2.5 million, the Pioneer Auditorium can seat 1,428 people - underneath a geodesic dome designed by architect Buckminster Fuller, a spokesman in Reno said.
The Reno facility has four levels, including two underground, and was financed entirely through the city hotel taxes, the spokesman added.
Beatley this week said, "I would prefer that the private sector build a convention center, but at least we ought to be looking at the idea. I certainly wouldn't want it to be isolated out by itself somewhere. Ideally it should be in an area with restaurants, shops and plenty of parking. I am definitely not talking about a sports complex," Beatley added.
Robert Gratton, chairman of the Arlington County Visitors Commission, said a convention center is needed in the area. Gratton, the general manager of the Hospitality House motel in Arlington, said that business and government officials in Arlington "are in the talking stage" regarding a possible convention center for the city. He added that no concrete plans had been drawn up.
According to Engin Artemel, head of the city's Planning and Community Development section, his agency studied Beatley's convention center proposal when it was first made in 1975. "That report was not too optimistic about the success of a convention center in Alexandria," Artemel said.
"We didn't have the business volume coming in and there was too much competition from hotels in Crystal City," he said. "But now Alexandria has further developed its ambience" which has led to an increased restaurant and retail business, "and with Metro it's another story," he added. "Conditions have definitely changed."
Barbara Jammey, director of the Alexandria Tourist Council, said that the city currently has an all-time high of 2,117 hotel rooms with several hotels in the planning stage. Jammey said that tourism in Alexandria is a $50 million-a-year industry, with an estimated 847,000 visitors annually.