Belgium's Prince Albert toured Montgomery County's high-technology centers this month, seeking a model for the future of his European country, which is better known for its chocolate and lace than computers and biotechnology.
He spent a morning at the National Institutes of Health, which is credited with sparking the development of a biotechnology industry in the county, and visited two companies that typify the new shape of technology around Washington.
And next week, another delegation from Belgium will visit Washington. The government of Mayor Marion Barry has established a sister-city relationship with the region around its capital of Brussels.
Prince Albert's visit was aimed toward getting ideas on how to encourage the development of high-technology industries in his country, although Montgomery County development officials hoped there would be the added spinoff of some Belgian companies deciding to locate facilities there.
"They wanted to know what the elements were in attracting industries -- why they came to Montgomery County. But also we are looking for opportunities for their companies to locate here. Lots of Belgian companies want to get into the American market," said Deborah Boudreau, manager of corporate marketing for the county's Office of Economic Development.
Belgium is suffering a fate similar to those of many European nations: They led the way in the industrial revolution but now find themselves outpriced in world markets in the steel and textile industries by low-wage Third World countries, especially the newly industrialized nations of the Pacific Rim, said Hubert van Houtte, economic minister in the Belgian embassy here.
"It is an acute problem to modernize our economy and products as fast as we can, from the classical steel and textiles to high technology. This is easier said than done, with so many countries trying to develop high-technology industries," he said.
The prince, brother of King Baudouin I, is a leader of Belgian overseas economic missions, even though in a constitutional monarchy neither he nor the king have direct power over government decisions.
Nonetheless, embassy and county officials said he was especially impressed with his visit to M/A-Com Telecommunications Inc. in Germantown, a firm that has followed the pattern of many successful American technology companies. One branch of the company, Digital Communications Corp., was started in a garage in 1972, and six years later merged with a Massachusetts firm, Microwave Associates Communications, to form M/A-Com.
It now boasts $850 million in sales -- including a $10 million satellite dish antenna system that it sold to Belgium. Technological progress moves so quickly, however, that the prince was told that system now sells for far less.
Before visiting the research facilities, Prince Albert met with Montgomery County Executive Charles Gilchrist and members of his staff to learn about county programs that help attract industries.
Dr. Robert Snyder described how a high-technology council works with industry and educational institutions to make sure the companies get the kind of trained people they need.
Although it is not designed as a followup to the prince's tour, 16 Belgian businessmen will visit the area beginning Sunday as part of the newly developed sister-city relationship between Brussels and Washington. This group will be headed by Jean-Louis Thys, deputy minister for the Brussels region. The agreement was signed three weeks ago.