- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 6, 2002

COLONIAL BEACH, Va. This town on the Northern Neck has all the ingredients to become a tourist mecca.
The beachfront stretches for miles, longer than anywhere else in the state except Virginia Beach. The location allows residents in the wealthy D.C. suburbs to reach a quick weekend getaway in half the time it would take to get to the big waterfront resorts of Virginia Beach, Ocean City or Rehoboth, Del.
It even has a bit of gambling: an off-track betting parlor on a pier above the Potomac River, a reminder of an earlier era when slot parlors drew thousands of gamblers. Because Maryland owns the Potomac, property above the river is considered part of Maryland, which allowed the slots until 1969.
Now, as Colonial Beach considers a multimillion-dollar revitalization of its underutilized boardwalk, it ponders the balance between attracting more tourists and being overrun by them.
Mayor George W. "Pete" Bone Jr. said officials and residents are beginning to realize that the town needs more tourists.
Just last year, the Town Council turned down a $25,000 grant to study boardwalk revitalization. But elections earlier this year swept economic development advocates into office and changed the attitude of the Town Council, Mr. Bone said.
"In the past, the town has at times had a bit of a reactionary approach," he said. "We're trying to be pro-active."
The concrete boardwalk stretches more than 800 feet, anchored by a motel on one end and the municipal pier on the other. A handful of shops cater to beachgoers who want a hot dog or some sunscreen, but large patches are vacant.
Town Manager Ralph A. "Tuffy" Hicks said he would like to see shops and restaurants on the ground level, topped with condominiums that owners could turn into vacation rentals. But he said the town is willing to consider a variety of ideas.
"We want to get something here that will be revenue-producing and bring some life to the boardwalk," Mr. Hicks said.
The town opened bids June 28 on boardwalk-development proposals. Mr. Hicks said developers from across the country have called and inquired about the project.
On a recent summer day, beachgoers agreed that the boardwalk could use an overhaul.
"It's still very nice but honestly the place is kind of losing it," said George Tally of Montpelier, who took his family to the beach for a day during a camping vacation at nearby Westmoreland State Park.
Years ago, he said, the boardwalk had offered more amenities.
Ronnie and LaRonia Bankhead of Montross agreed that the boardwalk could use a few more restaurants, benches and an infusion of soft, white sand to supplement a natural beach that is coarse in places. But they said Colonial Beach has a feeling that can't be duplicated elsewhere.
"You feel comfortable. You feel like you're at home," said Mr. Bankhead, who grew up in the Washington area but often came to Colonial Beach in his childhood. "It's a mix of blacks and whites; everybody gets along. It's just a nice place to be."
Indeed, with little effort, the town's tourist trade has been steady. The Colonial Beach population of 3,100 swells on busy summer weekends to nearly 18,000, Mr. Bone said.
Still, that pales compared with Virginia Beach, which draws roughly 3 million tourists a year.
Efforts to promote tourism have extended beyond the boardwalk. This year, the town successfully lobbied the General Assembly for permission to let residents and visitors drive golf carts on town streets. Mr. Bone said the ability to tool around town in a golf cart will appeal to older vacationers who don't want to do a lot of walking.
Martha Steger, spokeswoman for the Virginia Tourism Corp., said that in the past, a "lack of continuity" in the town's efforts to draw tourists may have limited its potential.
But she said tourism has blossomed on the Northern Neck in the past five to 10 years, and Colonial Beach can be a part of that surge.
Surrounding Westmoreland County is home to the birthplaces of George Washington, Robert E. Lee and James Monroe, and to the award-winning Ingleside Winery.
"It's pretty much up to the locality to decide how far they want to go," she said. "There's no doubt there's untapped potential."
The town bears the added burden of losing its largest marina to a devastating fire earlier this year. Kyle Schick, owner of the 160-slip Colonial Beach Yacht Center, said cleanup from the April fire is complete, and about 30 boats are using the marina. The restaurant and fuel dock are open, but most of the boating business is lost for the year.
When it rebuilds, though, Mr. Schick said the marina will offer bigger slips to accommodate today's larger boats, as well as better technological amenities.
"We'll have one of the most modern marinas in the Chesapeake Bay by the time we're done," Mr. Schick said.
Mr. Bone said the changes under way in Colonial Beach should provide an infusion of tourist dollars without changing the town's character.
"We're not going to try to be Virginia Beach. We don't have the activity for the younger generation," Mr. Bone said. "We see Colonial Beach as a getaway place, somewhere to get out of the hustle and bustle."


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