Canadian embassy a hot ticket on Capitol Hill
WASHINGTON - Newt Gingrich had hoped to be the man taking the oath of office on inauguration day last week.
Instead, the former Republican presidential hopeful was at the Canadian Embassy, watching U.S. President Barack Obama's swearing-in from 501 Pennsylvania Ave.'s expansive sixth-floor patio as he and his wife, Callista, mingled with VIPs, nibbled on canapes and posed for photos with Mounties.
The Gingriches were among 1,500 party-goers — including senators, intelligence officials and even the State Department's climate change envoy — who amassed at the embassy, just a stone's throw from the Capitol building, to enjoy the type of Canada-infused celebration that's becoming hotly sought after in the American capital.
A glitzy reception for "Argo," the critically acclaimed film on the Iran hostage crisis, was held at the embassy in October.
Ambassador Gary Doer welcomed director Ben Affleck to the embassy as well as the actor's wife, Jennifer Garner, and fellow actors Bryan Cranston and John Goodman. Gen. David Petraeus was also at the party, held just a month before he was forced to resign as director of the CIA amid a sex scandal.
Earlier this month, a U.S. senator celebrated her upcoming swearing-in at the swank building, an event thought to be a first for the embassy.
Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar's invitation to her party, attended by several fellow senators and former vice president Walter Mondale, asked guests to "spice up their attire with a dash of Minnesota or its friendly neighbour to the north."
And next month, the National Governors Association is hosting a reception at the embassy, with at least 30 governors expected to attend.
Doer says it's little wonder the embassy is such a hot ticket.
"It's located in such a great spot ... when you look out the sixth floor of this building, it's the best view in town, it really is," he said in a recent interview.
He credits those in the 1970s who had the foresight to seize upon the location as a new home for Canada's embassy when its digs on so-called Embassy Row, miles from Capitol Hill, had grown too cramped.
"Those who are here today stand on the shoulders of those whose idea was to build it," Doer said.
Once the home of a Ford dealership and a public library, Canadian officials took advantage of a push by U.S. federal officials to revitalize a run-down Pennsylvania Avenue in the early 1970s and bought the space for $5 million.
The embassy was completed in 1989, a sleek, contemporary building designed by B.C. architect Arthur Erickson.
With its famous echoing rotunda and brilliant rows of Canadian flags blowing in the breeze, the embassy has become a familiar Capitol Hill landmark. It's also a bargain for U.S. power brokers looking for a sweet spot to hold a party.
The embassy has partners on major events, so the majority of the bill is picked up by those partners, not the government of Canada. RIM, TD Bank and the Canadian American Business Council, for example, were among the key partners for last week's inauguration party.
The embassy can't charge a fee for use of the space; it can only charge for costs associated with receptions or events — food, drink and entertainment, for example. That makes it a relatively cheap place to hold a soiree in an otherwise wildly expensive city.
And with Doer at the helm of the embassy, movers and shakers are sitting up and taking notice of the jewel on Pennsylvania Avenue. Since he arrived in D.C. in November 2009, Doer's staff has been going the extra mile on congressional outreach.
Last week, for example, they sent Capitol Hill lawmakers a video of the former Manitoba premier congratulating them on their electoral successes while reminding them of Canada's friendship and significance.
"You can always count on Canada," a smiling Doer said in the video.
Embassy staff say Canada was the only embassy to send a video message; others have simply sent letters. They add that Doer's video greeting has been a hit on Capitol Hill.
In the weeks and months to come, the embassy is intent on focusing more on social media to reach out to Capitol Hill staffers and business leaders.
The Connect2Canada Twitter feed was a major component at last week's inauguration party, for example, as embassy staffers retweeted the dispatches of party-goers who used the hashtag #Viewfrom501. Those tweets were also showcased on a Jumbotron in the building's courtyard as the inauguration festivities played out.
Next month, the embassy is also launching a new website — InnovationScan — that's aimed at putting Canadian companies in touch with U.S. investors and business partners.
The embassy will also continue to open its doors for an array of political and business events in the year ahead, all of them primarily aimed at forging deeper bonds between the U.S. and Canada.
"We're using the embassy not to just say how great Canada is, but to demonstrate how well we work together," Doer said.
"More people will participate in those sorts of events than just having something narrow. We don't want to be a one-trick pony; we want to use the embassy in a broader way."