Montgomery vies for All-America honor

Bragging rights at stake in civic league's contest

June 25, 1999|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

ROCKVILLE -- Armed with chocolate crabs, a talking robot and swollen pride, county leaders are in Philadelphia to answer a simple question: What's so great about Greater Montgomery?

The right answers, and they bring home the title All-America City, an annual honor bestowed on 10 communities by the National Civic League.

The wrong answers, and they come home Sunday as they did last summer -- empty-handed.

For a half-century, the civic league has spotlighted the best examples of how we live -- from picturesque townships where Dudley Do-Right might patrol to Rust Belt cities that have refused to succumb to urban ills.

Winners get a plaque and the right to use the red, white and blue All-America City shield on letterhead, banners, promotional materials, the backs of buses.

"So what?" a cynic might yawn about a competition that seems to combine the tackiest elements of Up With People and the Olympic city selection process.

Regional pride

"When you have 2,000 people together who are all proud of where they come from, it's one of the best places to be on the planet," says Jeanne Ageneessens of Green Bay, Wis., which like Montgomery County is back after disappointment last year.

Buffalo, N.Y., twice a finalist before winning in 1996, sums up the award's importance on a promotional World Wide Web site that shows pictures of the Stanley Cup, the Super Bowl trophy and the All-America City shield. The caption: Need It. Need It. Got It.

Says Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, "There are lots of people who work very hard to make the county a better place to live. It's nice to be recognized by your peers."

So it was yesterday morning that 90 Montgomery residents boarded buses for the two-hour trip up Interstate 95, knowing that like Spartans they must return home carrying the shield or be brought back on it.

In April, Montgomery survived the first cut, which eliminated 63 communities, including Ocean City, College Park and Garrett County.

Dueling strategies

Part of Montgomery's strategy, like Green Bay's, was to tack "Greater" onto its name and invite other entities to join the application. Montgomery County added Takoma Park, Rockville and Gaithersburg. Green Bay added the city of De Pere, Wis.

The civic league allows non- cities to compete as a way of recognizing that problem-solving often requires a regional approach.

Each community has submitted an application that outlines three successful programs and requires a painful self-evaluation that gauges resident participation, government leadership and performance, voluntarism and its vision of what it wants to be.

"The application is pretty painful, pretty intense," says Lisa Greene of Brooklyn Park, one of two Minnesota communities vying for the title. "It requires real soul-searching without finger-pointing."

It's not cheap, either. Brooklyn Park is spending $15,000 on its campaign; Green Bay, $85,000, much of it plane fare and rooms for 79 people; Montgomery, about $30,000, from public and private sources.

Aberdeen won the designation in 1997 and Baltimore in 1991.

The 30 finalists will make 10-minute presentations today, some replete with song-and-dance numbers, and answer questions from a panel of judges.

Communities also strut their stuff at the Civic Action Fair, where they have booths to trade ideas and trinkets.

Brooklyn Park is dangling Jesse Ventura action figures (the former mayor, now governor). "We don't want to make this the Jesse Ventura show, but he is what we're known for," acknowledges Greene.

Green Bay has a life-size cardboard cutout of quarterback Brett Favre to use as a prop and "cheese flings," foam-rubber Frisbee-shaped fromage.

Montgomery has crustacean confections and Duncan, the county executive, in the flesh.

Food is a big draw, confides Duncan, who nonetheless is envious of the Brooklyn Park gimmick. "I'd bring a Parris Glendening action figure, but the Jesse Ventura figure would probably beat it up," he says. "You know, `My governor can beat up your governor.' "

Duncan doesn't want to predict victory but says he thinks this year's entry is a stronger one.

Just to be sure, though, Montgomery has recruited a wisecracking robot to promote its high-technology industry, relegating to the trash heap last year's mascot: Digger the Composting Worm.

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