Public investment in higher education and support of the biotechnology industry are critical to the future of Montgomery County's economic development, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) said last week in his "State of the Economy" speech.

Duncan, who is a potential candidate for governor in 2006, addressed the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce's annual dinner last Thursday at the Indian Spring Country Club in Silver Spring. He used the occasion to promote his administration's record and to renew criticism of state leaders.

"As I've traveled the state, I've had countless numbers of people tell me how lucky I am to be county executive of Montgomery County. I've had people call us 'the Montgomery County miracle,' " Duncan said. "It's not luck. It's not a miracle. . . . What made this happen was vision and hard work."

Duncan also criticized state leaders over cuts in higher education and for spending much of the past legislative session debating legalization of slot machine gambling.

"If we continue to cut from institutions of higher education, we are courting disaster," he said.

Duncan noted a recent Ernst & Young report that said Maryland's life sciences industry had slipped from third to fourth among U.S. biotechnology centers. "Maryland is being hit with a tidal wave of competition," he said. "Our state cannot rest on our laurels."

He went on to suggest that initiatives he has put in place in Montgomery County be replicated elsewhere. "There should be tech incubators in every county in the state," Duncan said to applause.

He described Silver Spring as "the national model for redevelopment," but he also acknowledged that some Silver Spring businesses are struggling because of rapidly rising rents. "With any redevelopment, there are growing pains," he said. "We continue to help those businesses that wish to relocate."

The audience appeared receptive to Duncan's message. The business community in Montgomery County has been bullish on the former AT&T executive since he first ran for county executive in 1994 as a business-friendly candidate. As soon as Duncan arrived at the dinner, he was surrounded by well-wishers, who almost kept him from sampling the orzo, chicken breast and julienne carrots.

Most people in the room seemed to know the bottom line of Duncan's address: "The state of our county's economy is strong," he said. "It's vibrant and robust."

Duncan offered several benchmarks: 31,000 jobs added this past year, commercial construction permits up 17 percent and the lowest unemployment rate in the state.

"We have one of the top, if not the top, economies in the country," said Duncan, noting recent comments by regional economic analyst Stephen Fuller of George Mason University.

However, Fuller said in a telephone interview that Montgomery County is not the strongest jurisdiction in the region. Fairfax County added almost twice as many jobs in the past year as Montgomery County did.

Montgomery's economy is the most diverse in the area, Fuller said, and the county's mix of industries and jobs makes it less vulnerable to economic downturns than many other areas.

Duncan's suggestion that the state focus on growing the tech industry over legalizing gambling struck a chord with the audience.

"We need alternate forms to bring in revenue," said Steve Taylor of Family Choice Healthcare.

Frank Gelbart, president and CEO of Appfluent Technology, a Bethesda-based software company, added: "Gaming is just not a solid foundation. It's not a business that promotes well-being."

Patrizio Carrera, a member of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, praised Duncan's work in Silver Spring. "He's doing a great job," Carrera said. "Silver Spring's downtown is the best thing I've seen in [a long] time."

But Carrera said he wanted to hear more. "I didn't hear what things Montgomery County can do for the Hispanic community," he said.

Before Duncan's speech, the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce marked the end of Steve Robins's tenure as its president. Robins, a partner with the law firm of Lerch, Early & Brewer in Bethesda, swore in the chamber's new officers, including President Charles Atwell, president of Innovative Business Interiors in Silver Spring.

In a speech to business leaders last week, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan urged support for the biotech industry and higher education.