ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Milwaukee has its beer; Seattle its decaf latte.
Alexandria (pop. 110,000) has its quaint historic area and lovely waterfront along the Potomac, but the city has come to stand for the proposition that if there is an interest in America, there is an interest group.
Hardly any distinct idea, diversion, profession, passion or product goes unrepresented. Parachuting, boating, fishing all have headquarters in town. Police, district attorneys, veterans, postal workers -- each and every one has an organization here. Salt, coal ash, peanuts -- they're all a presence in the old city.
And we've barely gotten started.
Outside Washington, and perhaps New York and Chicago, Alexandria is home to the greatest concentration of national professional and trade associations in the world. (Places two, three and four are changeable depending upon who's counting and what definitions are being used.) And because of Alexandria's size, the presence of those 300-some associations is unmistakable.
In Alexandria, there are associations for the manufacturers of gears, of lubricants, of envelopes, of sleep products. There are societies of professional engineers, naval engineers, military engineers, black engineers. There are organizations for oncologists, otolaryngologists and osteopathic surgeons. The Heart Association is here, and so is the Diabetes Association.
Helicopters and pharmacists
Port authorities and airport executives have a presence in Alexandria, as do the operators of truck stops. Two helicopter associations are in town. Convenience store owners have their national association in Alexandria, as do those who run shopping centers and drugstores. No aspect of pharmacology goes unrepresented. The city is headquarters to the American College of Apothecaries, the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy, the Academy of Managed Care Pharmacy, the American Society of Consultant Pharmacists and the National Association of Retail Druggists.
Beer wholesalers are in Alexandria, as well as wine producers and the National Association of Licensed Beverages. So is the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association.
Similarly, the Snack Foods Association is in Alexandria. As penance, the Road Runners Club of America is in town, too.
The Composting Council is in Alexandria.
The most obvious answer is Washington. Associations want to be near the nation's capital to keep an eye on federal legislation or regulations that impinge on their various industries. For example, Kerley LeBoeuf, president of the National Association of Convenience Stores, has been watching EPA regulations concerning the underground storage of gasoline and Food and Drug Administration proposals aimed at keeping tobacco products out of the hands of minors.
Similarly, Larry Robinson of the Color Pigment Manufacturers Association has been staying abreast of environmental regulations concerning the disposal of waste, a touchy subject for the makers of coloring processes.
Wendy Allen of the American Gear Manufacturers Association and M. E. Rhett Flater of the American Helicopter Association are often called across the Potomac to testify about technical matters of vital interest to their members. Jim Singerling, executive vice president of the Club Managers Association of America, finds himself speaking to federal agencies about job skills in his industry.
Some of the associations were once in Washington but were driven out by crime, cost and congestion. "It's cheaper, it's safer, it's more comfortable," says Guy Kolb of the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals, an organization of corporate market researchers.
Some of the organizations don't have that much business in Washington, but their membership is heavily weighted with present or former federal employees who live in the area. That is true, for example, of the American Statistical Association, whose bean counters populate many a federal agency, as well as the numerous veterans and defense-related associations (including the intriguingly named Association of Old Crows, an organization concerning the electronics of military weaponry).
Others have virtually no Washington connection at all. They are in Alexandria for no other reason than it's a pleasant place to be.
"The reason we're here is very logical," says Henley Gibble, head of Road Runners Club of America. She opened the club's national office in Alexandria 10 years ago because that's where she lived. "If the president had been someone other than me, they would have opened where they live."
Since the mid-1970s, national organizations have sprouted all over the Washington area -- in Arlington, Va., in Reston, Va., in Bethesda -- but Alexandria has been the most aggressive and certainly most successful in marketing itself as an association mecca, offering tax incentives and other inducements to suck in national organizations.
Their presence has transformed the city. In the past 10 years, the amount of occupied office space in the city has grown three times while employment has nearly doubled, says Richard M. Flaherty of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership. Much of that growth, he says, is attributable to the associations, which, as a whole, are the second-leading employers in town.
They create the types of employees a city relishes -- well-paid professionals, the sort who spawn Banana Republics, Starbucks and the other yuppified stores and restaurants that have sprouted in the historic Old Town section of Alexandria.
The other benefit of the associations is their great diversity, which, Flaherty says, cushions Alexandria from downturns within particular industries. A devastating drought in the South, which might force the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association to cut its staff in Alexandria, would have no effect on, say, the National District Attorneys Association.
So much diversity might suggest that the associations would have little to do with each other. What would the Household Goods Forwarders Association of America, for example, have to say to the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans (which has a rags-to-riches membership that includes the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Colin L. Powell)? Plenty, it turns out.
"A lot of us get together for breakfast once a month to talk about things that we have in common," says LeBoeuf of the convenience store association.
Those doing association work regard themselves as professionals with certain shared skills: How to build and retain and communicate with a membership. How to run a smooth conference. How to negotiate with hotels and caterers. How to deal with a prickly board of directors.
They also don't have to look far when it comes to filling vacancies.
"Here, we have a wealth of people who want to develop their careers," says Kolb of the Competitive Intelligence Professionals. Here, you've got them all available, whereas in Terre Haute, finding someone who can run a 3,000-person conference, it's a little harder."
And if you can't find such a person in Alexandria, you might
through the AMP, the Association of Meeting Professionals. Just call Alexandria for the number.
Pub Date: 2/24/97