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For Duncan, A Legacy Built Brick By Brick

Massive Construction Marks Montgomery Leader's Term

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 1, 2005; Page A01

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan had the anxious look of a first-time home buyer walking through his purchase last Friday as he toured the Music Center at Strathmore, the $100 million North Bethesda concert hall opening this week.

He wondered about the few seats still missing from the main auditorium, where Saturday evening's inaugural concert will feature the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and guest cellist Yo-Yo Ma. In the cafe, he tried out one of the chairs.

Douglas M. Duncan may tout his building record in the race for governor. (2004 Photo Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

"I was checking to see how they fit," he said.

The 1,976-seat hall fits into a bricks-and-mortar legacy unprecedented for a Montgomery executive -- one Duncan hopes to sell to a statewide electorate in the 2006 gubernatorial race.

Strathmore caps a $200 million county investment in major building projects he has overseen since he was elected in 1994, including the 35,000-square-foot conference center in White Flint, a jail in Clarksburg and the transformation of downtown Silver Spring.

The aggressive construction is a departure from past county executives, who tended more toward planning and management of existing resources. Duncan's approach has been closer to the "do-it-now" attitude of Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D), who as Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor defied skeptics and spearheaded the construction of Harborplace and the Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Schaefer doesn't dispute the comparison.

"He doesn't sit and wait," Schaefer said of Duncan. "He sees something and he goes. . . . He's not afraid to stick out and not afraid to take a chance."

To be sure, Duncan didn't do it by himself. A booming economy in the late 1990s helped. Federal state and private funds were also needed to finance many of the projects, as was the support of the County Council. Silver Spring's revitalization would not have happened without decisions by Discovery Communications Inc. and the American Film Institute to relocate.

There were also missteps. Early in his administration, he supported a proposal to bring a 27-acre, American Dream "megamall" to downtown Silver Spring. Many residents derided the plan as tacky and said it would draw too many visitors without serving local needs. Duncan dropped the proposal in 1996, when investor interest flagged.

But as he prepares a probable run for the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial nomination, Duncan's reputation as a politician who can move projects from blueprints to reality will be a central part of the record he presents to Maryland voters.

"Everything I have tried to do is about bringing the community together and building a sense of community," Duncan said. "We have transformed from a bedroom community into an urban center and the economic engine of the state of Maryland, and I am very proud of that."

Although business and community leaders offer generally glowing reviews of Duncan's record in executing big projects, there is concern about long-term fiscal implications of the building spree.

Although the county has spent more than $100 million to revitalize Silver Spring, the school system has been unable to keep pace with enrollments. About 17,000 students are being taught in portable classrooms.

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