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Serving the Mid-County: A Q&A with Natalie Cantor, Part 1

Cantor, director of the Mid-County Regional Services Center, will retire on June 30.

Natalie Cantor has spent the past 26 years of her career working in the County's Services Centers and the past 16 as Director of the Mid-County Center. Cantor, a fixture at Wheaton events and committee meetings, is retiring at the end of the month, amid major organizational changes at the Services Center. 

Wheaton Patch sat down with Cantor to ask about living and working in Wheaton, and how her job and the area has changed.

Wheaton Patch: Why are your retiring now? What was the decision process?

Natalie Cantor: The first thing is my age. I will be closer to 67 by the time I retire, and my husband’s been retired for two years.  I’ve just been thinking that it will be a good time to do it. There wouldn’t be, for me, much of a gain by working a couple more years.

WP: Were staff and budget cuts part of the consideration? 

NC: It was. It was a painful thing to see. I’ve been blessed to work with such great people. So I guess, the combination of the change in the role of the regional center and my personal reasons, which of course are the overwhelming ones, but certaintly the professional change gave it an added push to do it.

WP: Will someone be replacing you?

NC: From every indication they will be. Under the first Leggett administration, there was legislation passed to make the job a political appointment because it is such a sensitive job and that’s fully understandable. But what happened during that legislation is that the incumbents, myself included, were grandfathered. Now that I’m stepping down, the County Executive can just appoint someone. And that can be done very quickly or it can take a long period.

WP: They’ll be coming into a very different center?

NC: Yes, it will be a very different atmosphere. The role will be kind of like the County Executive’s ambassador. There will be a lot more back and forth with the County Council. They are going to have a much larger role in determining the work program of the regional center director. It’s a completely changed job. I think still a very important job.

WP: While you’ve been here, how has the job changed?

NC: When I started in 1987, the centers were really just beginning, they had just been existing for a few years. I would say it was kind of a decentralized place to give county services. And the center director’s role at that point was to be the eyes and ears for the county government, but mostly to direct people into services. The role began to evolve I would say, in the early 1990s, where the center director really was expected to be both an advocate in a very strong sense for the various communities, but then on the other side to really take on this ambassador role for the county government. It was kind of a difficult line to walk because often there were political positions being advocated and at the same time you needed to maintain a trust relationship with the community so that the center director couldn’t been seen as just blindly advocating for what his or her boss was then asking.

It was always a very difficult role and I’m very proud because I believe I’ve been able to walk that line, to be an advocate for the community, to tell the community the various stakeholders, the truth as I see it, and to be loyal to the people who have put there trust in me as a employee. Though it has very much it has become a much more complex, much more evolved position since 1987.

WP: What’s an example of walking that line of trying both to represent the County but also the community?

NC: There are so many examples. Certainly in some of the development issues, where neighborhoods, generally, and very understandably want to protect the nature of the neighborhood, the way it looks, the way it feels while the county needs to again, very understandably, sometimes bring in or encourage development to jumpstart things.

I think that way back, in the mid-90s, we were beginning to look at Wheaton’s redevelopment. This was before we truly had a redevelopment program, and people were very afraid that the county would try to redevelop this downtown in the way it had redeveloped in Bethesda and the way it was beginning to redevelop in Silver Spring. People very understandably, did not want that happening in Wheaton.

What I thought would be helpful was for all of us as a community to go through a visioning process. You can do many things when you go through a visioning process. You can hire outsiders, which most of the time people do, consultants. But I thought to myself, I want to hire somebody who has absolutely no axe to grind and who is dedicated to making development happen but in a very very sensitive way, in the most sensitive way. After a while, I concluded that the National Trust for Historic Preservation, their “Main Street” arm would be ideal. That’s exactly what they do, they work with small communities and some larger groups and it’s a fairly long process, but they try to understand just how much people are willing to see their community change, at the same time explain to them how much some of these things are needed in order to get good development, and come up with a vision.

First, I had to convince people in the County that this was the way to go, that we couldn’t just take an economic development point of view. I had to convince people in the community that this group was indeed going to listen to their point of view and they were not bound to any point of view. Then I had to convince the Executive and the County Council to give us the money to spend, because it was quite a lot of money.

Then we had to take all of the time to get it done. Flash forward about a year and it turned out marvelous. Absolutely marvelously. People in the community begin to understand that they needed to embrace certain types of development. The business community was sensitized to what the community could handle and couldn’t handle. And we came up with a vision that is still being used today. In fact everything we learned years ago, was very much validated, it was almost identical with what Saul came up with in its working with the community. And the trust had already been established.  Before that particular visioning process, there wasn’t trust on either side. I was kind of in the middle, doing shuttle diplomacy between the two stakeholder groups. And I think because of that process, trust was established that is there to this day. That was one of the better things.

Read part two of our Q&A with Cantor tomorrow.

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