Take cover. Batten down the hatches. Tighten your belts and hold on, Montgomery County. You're in for a shock and it's going to be considerable, says Blair Lee IV, a prominent businessman in the county.

"We are in a recession," Lee recently declared in decidedly bleak remarks to members of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce. "The 1980s are over and so are the good times," he asserted. "We've enjoyed 10 years of America's greatest boom, and now we're about to suffer the bust that comes after it."

History books call it a panic, Lee mused, putting an unusually alarming spin on the county's and the region's economic slowdown.

Perhaps even more alarming, Lee warned that Montgomery County "may be harder hit than other parts of the nation," in the current economic downturn that others, like him, are calling a recession. "The first casualty of the panic of 1990 will be the long-held myth that Montgomery County is recession-proof," Lee predicted. "We're about to find out that we're not."

Not only is Montgomery County about to discover that it isn't recession-proof, "the shock is going to be considerable," according to Lee.

That's a fairly drastic prognosis for what unquestionably is one of the country's wealthier communities. Certainly most communities are feeling pressure from a stalled national economy, but few people locally are prepared to believe that the bottom is going to drop out in Montgomery County. "All things are relative," Lee told a reporter recently. "We're talking about a cushioned and coddled community." Repeating a line from his state of the county address to the chamber, Lee bluntly observed: "None of us have really known hardship -- at least, my generation hasn't. I grant you that yuppies can't even spell the word. To them, hardship is trying to find a parking space at a shopping mall."

That notwithstanding, Lee believes, the slowdown in the economy appears to presage hard times. "We're not Flint, Michigan, but we're not recession-proof either," he said in an interview. "The more {economic data} I pulled together, the more frightened I got.

"What the experts were telling me and what the numbers were telling me are pretty frightening. There may be light at the end of the tunnel, but my problem is no one can see the light."

Although concern and uncertainty about the direction the economy is likely to take have become commonplace, it's rare for an executive, in metropolitan Washington at least, to stand up and sound the alarm signaling further decline and hardship, of all things.

"I'm not trying to be Chicken Little or anything like that," said Lee. "All I'm saying is that the barometers I've studied are all down."

Lee's reading of one of those barometers has led him to conclude that real estate is "in the dumpster."

"We have 28 million square feet of empty suburban office space around the Beltway -- almost a three-year supply," Lee told members of the Montgomery chamber. "This is finally producing a system where the lenders are realizing it doesn't make much more sense to lend money to build more office space, so we probably have three years of no construction."

It will be interesting to see how these dire warnings and predictions play in the real estate fraternity where Lee, as an executive in a Montgomery County firm, is a member in good standing. More than a few executives in that fraternity consider it heresy to talk publicly about the industry's dilemma. Indeed, many of them insist that news accounts of the slowdown are hurting their business.

That's baloney -- or words to that effect -- contends Lee, who is vice president of Lee Development Group, a real estate services and development firm in Silver Spring. "What the numbers crunchers are telling me is that things are going to be worse than in 1981 and 1982," he said.

In his chamber address -- which the organization distributed widely to members who weren't present -- Lee ticked off a litany of reports and studies from government agencies and private economists in support of his gloomy assessment. The Federal Reserve, he noted recently cited Maryland and other parts of the mid-Atlantic region as "one of the weakest economies in the United States." A Moody's Investor service survey, he added, ranked the Middle Atlantic region the second-riskiest banking environment in the nation. Moreover, said Lee, Maryland banks led the nation in the percent increase in past-due real estate loans.

"A lot of things are hitting our local economy all at one time," Lee warned. "The primary problem we suffer from here is that the two cornerstones of our economy -- real estate and defense -- are simultaneously in decline."

Indeed, the region's real estate sector is in a trough -- pushed there by greed and runaway speculation in the industry and carelessly overindulgent lenders. The residential real estate market has slipped off the track because sellers of new and existing homes are trying to reap 1985 profits in 1990 when consumer confidence is much lower. Nonetheless, the National Association of Realtors reported just last week that the median price of existing homes in the Washington area rose 3.4 percent in the third quarter, compared with the same period a year ago.

Defense firms in Montgomery County may be retrenching, as Lee points out, but defense spending in the area hasn't declined that drastically. Like other firms, defense contractors have become apprehensive about federal spending and about what might happen as the region's economy slows down from the record growth rate of the 1980s. Thus, defense contractors and a host of business services firms -- the backbone of the private sector in the region's economy -- are closing the files on what had been extremely ambitious growth plans. Some aren't filling vacancies. Others are laying off white-collar workers. Most are cutting costs generally wherever it seems to make sense. And for good reason. The Fed did say, after all, that economic activity "generally weakened further in October" in the Federal Reserve District that includes the Washington region.

Unemployment has crept up but the area's jobless rate, at 3.5 percent, remains substantially below the national average of 5.7 percent. The rate in Montgomery County is 2.8 percent, compared with 2.4 percent a year ago. Commercial real estate may be in a dumpster, as Lee says, and the banking industry is licking its wounds -- some of them self-inflicted during the 1980s binge in real estate development. The problems don't appear to be as deep-rooted in other sectors, however.

Lee is correct when he says, "The whole economic food chain is beginning to feel the pinch." But that's to be expected after almost 10 years of an economic Bacchanalia. He's also correct when he says that hardship for his generation "is difficulty finding a parking space at the mall."