Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes' nomination of Frank J. De Francis as secretary of the Department of Economic and Community Development a year ago not only defied conventional wisdom, but also caused considerable anxiety in political circles as well as in some segments of the state's business community.

As things turned out, however, Hughes' gamble in nominating De Francis apparently has paid off in improving the department's as well as the state's image in the business community. Indeed, the business climate in Maryland today is probably as strong as it has ever been. And that's no small accomplishment over a period of only 11 months.

De Francis' brief tenure as secretary of DECD ended last week when he resigned to take control of the Laurel Race Course, fulfilling what he termed "an ambition of mine for 10 years."

Horse racing has been in De Francis' blood since he was 12. It is one of the "three stated loves in my life," he volunteered last week, referring to the sport, his international law experience and his family.

De Francis returns to the private sector a winner, having given a year of service in "the only way a businessman can really understand the complexities of government -- to work in the public sector for a while."

But thoroughbred racing in Maryland is at "the crossroads of its survivability," De Francis asserted, and because of its importance as the state's third-largest industry, "it's just a challenge I couldn't pass up."

De Francis accepted a different kind of challenge last December when, indeed, the survivability of the DECD's effectiveness was at stake.

Although he had been highly successful as an international lawyer, lobbyist, entrepreneur and well-known breeder and owner of thoroughbreds, De Francis lacked experience as a professional in the keenly competitive business development arena. Questions about the investment environment in Maryland and criticism of the way the DECD was being administered didn't enhance the nomination of a neophyte in economic development as the person best qualified to improve the state's business climate and competitive position.

Notwithstanding his budding reputation at the time as the one man who could possibly reverse a decline in Maryland's scandal-ridden horse-racing industry, De Francis' close ties to the sport didn't sit very well with some business operators and executives and politicians who were keenly sensitive about the state's image.

Before De Francis' unanimous confirmation by the Maryland Senate, DECD had come under increasing fire from business and elected officials. The General Assembly's Special Joint Oversight Committee on Economic Development, for example, issued a report in January sharply critical of the department. It reflected testimony that indicated a strong feeling in the business community that DECD's development policies lacked coordination and direction.

Although it conceded the DECD had shown progress in addressing some glaring weaknesses, the oversight committee nevertheless released a stinging indictment of the department. Among its more pointed conclusions, the panel found the DECD wasn't doing enough to assist exisiting Maryland businesses and that there was an absence of any focus on regional economic development issues.

The committee also questioned whether state resources for economic development programs were being organized and deployed effectively. The committee also questioned the department's effectiveness as an advocate for Maryland's businesses and the agency's ability to anticipate significant economic trends and events.

Eleven months later, DECD is being hailed by business and political leaders in Maryland as a model government agency. House Speaker Benjamin Cardin was moved to say of De Francis, "We won't see another one like him again."

From the formation of a new business assistance center for existing firms in Maryland, to establishing a sister-state relationship with Anhui Province of the People's Republic of China (an agreement that could mean $50 million in investments in Maryland), De Francis' aggressive -- sometimes unorthodox -- style was credited with turning DECD around. Perhaps the crowning achievement of his brief tenure as secretary came with the announcement two weeks ago that the Institute for Defense Analysis will build its new supercomputing research center in Prince George's County.

"This will break Maryland out so that Maryland will stand alone" in a key high-technology area, he reflected the other day with a trace of triumph.

De Francis attributes the economic development successes and a change in perception of Maryland's business climate to "a partnership which stands out very uniquely in Maryland. The public sector working with the private sector working with the academic community is the foundation on which Maryland has to grow. That partnership was there when I came and it will be here after I've gone. I just hope I helped it along."

The governor probably agrees that his selection a year ago will be a tough act to follow.