Cindy Richmond, deputy director of Loudoun County's Department of Economic Development, has spent a lot of time thinking about what Loudoun's western towns need to keep them vibrant. Her conclusion is that towns anywhere need three basic things: good meeting places, plenty of community events and thriving businesses.

But while the ingredients are basic, the recipe is not always so straightforward.

Last week, she hired Christina Watson to help the department work with the county's towns to create the right mix. As coordinator of the department's new Towns Outreach program, Watson will spend the next three months -- possibly more -- researching the county's towns, interviewing their leaders and residents and determining how the department can help them with marketing and economic development issues.

"The department has done things informally with the towns for years, [and] we want to formalize that," Richmond said, adding that the mandate for the initiative comes directly from the Rural Economic Development plan, a document created last fall by about 25 community representatives who suggested ways to boost the county's rural economy. The plan underscored the importance of maintaining economically healthy towns.

Of course, each town's idea of "healthy" is different: Some want to boost tourism while others may want to stave off big business. Watson's job is to help determine what each town wants and then what the department can do to help in the way of securing funding or lending marketing support.

For some town leaders, the new program is a long time coming, and welcome.

"The county's finally starting to take the towns seriously," said John Henry King, Leesburg's assistant town manager for economic development. Part of the reason he was hired six years ago, he added, was that "the county was paying them no attention."

Lovettsville Mayor Elaine Walker agreed that the county has not done much for its seven incorporated towns. But she said she thinks that is changing. Walker helped organize a recent meeting of the Economic Development Commission at which time the town mayors gave presentations. It was the first commission meeting to concentrate on the towns since the group was formed four years ago.

When it comes to promoting town businesses and organizations, Walker said, "we don't have the means to do it ourselves."

Watson, who worked for nine years in economic development for the City of Phoenix, recently moved to Loudoun with her fiance, Ray Winn, who works for Orbital Sciences Corp. in Dulles. Watson said John Brannock, an Orbital executive and a commission member, suggested that she talk to Richmond, who hired her temporarily for the towns project. The temporary arrangement meant that the department would not have to post the job for all applicants, Richmond said.

"What a way to integrate yourself into a community quickly," said Watson, 27. She spent last week talking to town officials to arrange meetings. She already has discovered the degree of "diversity," as she put it, among the towns.

A few days ago, she called Hillsboro to leave a message for the mayor. When the person who answered said, "Hill Tom Market," Watson assumed she had misdialed.

"I said, `I was trying to get ahold of the mayor,' and [the woman] said, `Oh yeah, they just give our number because they don't have an office,' " Watson recalled. "You don't run across that anymore."

Watson said she plans to spend the next three months developing a report on the incorporated towns -- those with their own governments -- outlining each town's economic strengths and weaknesses, competitive advantages in areas such as tourism and goals for the future. She also will spend time researching possible sources of financing for town projects, including grants from nonprofit organizations.

In conjunction with Watson's research, the department has appointed a staff member to compile an economic history of all the towns to determine how they were shaped and what drove economic growth in the past.

At the end of her stint, Watson will present her findings to the commission, possibly at a town summit. Richmond said she hopes Watson then could apply successfully for one of three open positions in the department and stay on to help implement some of her recommendations.

So far, Watson said, she has only a basic understanding of what the towns want. She said she has a feeling, for example, that Middleburg is concerned primarily about boosting its main street retail. But, she cautioned, she has gotten only one side of the story out of many.

King said he finds Watson's lack of Loudoun heritage refreshing. She acknowledges, for example, that she knows little about the much discussed rift between eastern and western Loudouners. "She has no preconceived ideas . . . about what Leesburg should be," he said.

"You got to admit, this project is cool," said Watson, who said she loves small towns so much that she once looked into entering an MTV contest to win her own town in Arizona. (She never could find out the details.) Salem, Mass., is one of her favorite small towns -- "a place that can really keep you busy," she said.

Richmond agreed: "See, Salem had lots of saloons, a port with lots of activity and witch burnings."

CAPTION: As coordinator of the Towns Outreach program, Christina Watson will be developing a report on the county's seven incorporated towns.