Old Town Alexandria’s acclaimed Torpedo Factory Art Center is the single largest tourist attraction in the city, according to a new study by a respected economist, and should be used as a catalyst to draw more visitors.
The report by George Mason University economist Stephen S. Fuller comes eight months after the Alexandria government took over management of the center from a board of artists and city appointees, and as officials weigh how the 43-year-old center should be operated and governed.
Fuller was hired by the Torpedo Factory Artists’ Association, whose members are worried that the city will turn the eclectic collection of studios into a rigidly managed commercial enterprise. He found that the 470,000 people who visit the center each year contribute about $35 million to the local economy.
“The impact of the Torpedo Factory on the economic vitality of Old Town should not be underestimated,” said Fuller, a former resident of the neighborhood who said he can remember when King Street was a run-down stretch of secondhand stores and car lots.
The center, he told several dozen artists crammed into and outside of a third-floor studio, is “a gem, it’s an asset. Now you have to make it more.”
Fuller praised the art center — housed in a 1920s-era, warehouse-stye building that served a munitions factory during World War II — as unique in a market that increasingly values one-of-a-kind experiences. He said he had used the Torpedo Factory as an example for how to repurpose a 300-year-old structure in Portugal, and he said the center should try to emulate successful partnerships between other cultural attractions and businesses, such as one that exists between a brewery and an art museum on the island in Maine where he has a vacation home.
Fuller also urged more marketing of the art center and of the Old Town experience, and warned that the city’s tourism industry has not kept pace with a changing, more upscale regional market, nor with the higher-visibility National Harbor, whose convention center, shopping center, casino and Ferris wheel are visible from the Alexandria waterfront.
“Bragging a little bit isn’t a bad thing,” he said.
It was not immediately clear whether the city officials who run the center would heedFuller’s advice. The city took over July 1, and has been slowly setting up a committee to gather ideas from the community about how to move forward.
Vito Fiore, director of marketing and research for the Alexandria’s tourism bureau, challenged Fuller’s analysis that the city isn’t doing enough to promote itself, noting that hotel occupancy is 74 percent, the highest in a decade.
A total of 3.5 million visitors spent $771 million in 2015, the most recent year that such data is available, he said.