World & Nation

In D.C., business is booming ahead of inauguration

If you’re coming to Washington for the inauguration, pack some sturdy shoes, a heavy coat, a powerful pair of binoculars, a cartload of patience -- and your platinum credit card.

President-elect Barack Obama will not take the oath of office until next month, but already he’s boosting the economy in the capital region.

With record crowds expected to pack the National Mall on Jan. 20, hotels are marketing inaugural packages -- ranging from $50,000 to $200,000 -- replete with chauffeurs and gourmet meals.

Then there’s the homeowner in suburban Maryland offering to rent an “inaugural sleeper sofa” for $250 a night. Or the $65-a-night cabins without running water at the Harpers Ferry KOA Campground in West Virginia, 66 miles from Washington.

“I’m making sure that people fully understand that they have to take a hike to the shower house,” said Dale Brechlin, the campground manager.

The inauguration of the 44th president has sparked a flurry of logistical planning by the Presidential Inaugural Committee, the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, the Armed Forces Inaugural Committee and the District of Columbia, not to mention restaurants, hotels, tuxedo and limousine rentals, and other enterprises.

Officials are calculating how many portable toilets to plant on the Mall -- which for the first time during an inauguration will be open from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial -- as well as what to do with all the buses bringing visitors to the city. For those arriving by private jet, the National Business Aviation Assn. has warned of likely “parking challenges” at regional airports.

“You can expect airports to be packed like a Wal-Mart parking lot on Black Friday,” said Dug Garrett, a veteran of the air charter business.

Obama will take his oath on a platform being built on the west steps of the Capitol. He will deliver his inaugural address, have lunch inside the Capitol, then ride in a 1.5-mile parade down Pennsylvania Avenue to a reviewing stand in front of the White House.

The crowd is expected to surpass the record 1.5 million who turned out for President Johnson’s 1965 inauguration.

Tickets to the swearing-in are being kept in a secret, high-security location. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who is chairing the congressional inaugural committee, has introduced legislation to make it a federal crime to scalp or counterfeit inaugural tickets.

Congressional offices and the Presidential Inaugural Committee distribute the tickets for free, but demand has been so great that many offices stopped taking requests within a week of election day. Illinois Sen. Richard J. Durbin’s office has received 14,200 requests for about 400 tickets. Feinstein’s office has fielded 40,000 requests.

One person on Craigslist offered to swap his Super Bowl tickets.

Others are random-dialing congressional offices.

“People would pick up the phone and start calling congressmen, and guess whose name is first. We had all kinds of new friends,” David Helfert, an aide to Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), said of the inquiries the office received.

For those without tickets, there’s standing-room-only viewing on the Mall, which could involve watching the swearing-in on television screens that will be stationed as far away as the Lincoln Memorial -- two miles from the Capitol steps.

Meanwhile, record crowds and sardine-can conditions are expected on the Washington subway system, which will have rush-hour service from 4 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Inauguration Day.

“We are preparing for the fact that many of our trains could very well be filled to capacity by the time they reach the downtown core of the city,” said Steven Taubenkibel of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which is cashing in on Obama-mania with commemorative fare cards.

The District of Columbia is trying to accommodate crowds by lifting regulations that typically block homeowners from renting out rooms. The city also will allow bars and nightclubs to stay open 24 hours a day from Jan. 17 through 20 and serve drinks until 5 a.m.

Ellen Proxmire, who co-chaired President Kennedy’s inauguration, says people may reconsider making the trek to Washington when they realize hotels are sold out. Or, she said, “if people don’t have a place to stay, they’ll probably stay in the bars all night. It’ll be warm.”

Those staying at top hotels are likely to find inaugural goodies by their pillows. At the Mayflower, men can expect commemorative cuff links in the turndown service.

The Ritz-Carlton on 22nd Street is turning its lobby bar into an Obama-themed cocktail lounge, and its West End restaurant will offer themed Hawaiian dishes. Guests will receive a jar of Michelle Obama’s favorite shortbread cookies -- her own recipe -- as well as a “swearing-in survival kit” with Burberry scarf, ear muffs and binoculars.

At the Mandarin Oriental, a $200,900 package will include four nights in the 3,500-square-foot Presidential Suite, clothing from Ralph Lauren, a chauffeur-driven Maserati Quattroporte, daily spa treatments, and servings of Veuve Clicquot champagne and caviar. Guests can keep the robes, monogrammed with a “tasteful” inaugural seal that bears the word “Democrat.” The hotel promises a $10,000 donation -- in the guest’s name -- to the new first lady’s favorite charity.

So far, a hotel spokesman said, no one has bought the package.

But business is booming for limousines, tuxedos and restaurants, not to mention those planning dozens of high-end balls.

“Once Obama won, we became the hottest ticket in town,” said Sarah Elizabeth Ulis, president of the Hawaii State Society in Washington, whose island-themed ball sold out weeks ago, with 1,000 tickets fetching $200 apiece. “We had to send back $60,000 worth of checks.”

Some are hoping the Hawaiian-born Obama will stop by.

“It’s been a very good crazy,” said Courtney West, owner of Chariots for Hire, a limo and bus service in McLean, Va. “People are calling in from across the country.”

At Lustre Formal Wear of Capitol Hill, owner Brian Grozbean has gotten access to thousands of tuxedos. “We’ve gotten people calling from Hawaii, North Dakota, Los Angeles, all over the country,” he said.

Still, there’s some uncertainty among businesses near the parade route about the crowds and likely street closures.

“I was joking with the chef that we were going to bring our sleeping bags and stay here,” said Mimi Schneider, director of Kinkead’s, an upscale seafood restaurant four blocks from the White House. “I think we’re going to be completely overwhelmed.”

Simon and Zuckman are writers in our Washington bureau.

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