Here's how long Carmen S. Italia Jr. has been involved in economic development:

When the head of the Montgomery County Economic Development Corp. arrived in the region in 1974, Montgomery County could have been considered the tire capital of Pennsylvania, with Lee Tire, Firestone, and B.F. Goodrich all running factories. Other major heavy-industry employers were Bethlehem Steel and Alan Wood Steel.

Today, all are gone.

Yet Montgomery County has a healthy economy. It remains Pennsylvania's manufacturing leader even as its business base has diversified.

The government's 2007 Economic Census counted 1,110 manufacturers with 51,179 people on the payroll, even as the county's biggest employers now come from the health-care and financial-services sectors.

After 21 years in the top job, Italia said Thursday that he would retire at the end of the year. The board said it would begin to search for a successor soon.

Italia was deputy director of what was the Montgomery County Industrial Development Corp. from 1978 to 1984. He left to work in real estate before returning as the president of the economic-development group in 1990.

Like anyone in this game, Italia had wins and losses. He got to celebrate recently when Almac Group cut the ribbon on its new North American headquarters in Souderton. The Irish company, which provides manufacturing, packaging, and other services to the pharmaceutical industry, has 800 employees at that $120 million complex.

And he felt frustration after helping Merck & Co. Inc. find new space in the county to expand, only to watch the drug company's plans change after the 2004 recall of its Vioxx arthritis drug.

Italia, 62, said he'd been talking with his board for three years about planning for someone to succeed him. It's rare for anyone to clock 21 years as the head of anything these days. But Italia said he relished being "a facilitator," the guy who helped businesspeople and government types talk to one another and, hopefully, reach a deal that would create jobs.

His job is not all multimillion-dollar deals, however. The nonprofit organization deals with lots of small businesses trying to get financing. Its Suburban Development Council, which makes low-interest-rate loans, has about 30 loans outstanding.

As he rattled off the names of General Instrument, Lockheed Martin, GlaxoSmithKline, and others he's worked with over the years, Italia sounded like the Montgomery County salesman that he is.

"You can't say 'no' in this business," he said.

Months, even years can pass on a single project in which nothing happens. All it takes is one sizable deal that creates jobs, new tax revenue for a municipality, and room for an employer to grow to make the effort worthwhile.

"That's where you get enjoyment," Italia said.

I brought up the phrase "corporate welfare," referring to large public subsidies for projects involving companies that would seem to be able to afford just about anything.

Sometimes, he admitted, he would scratch his head over some of the requests by employers. But in the end, if a deal can be structured to preserve and even create "family-sustaining jobs," Italia said, the cost usually is worth it.

Though retiring, Italia said he preferred to think of himself as "rewiring."

Sure, some golf and travel are in his plans, but so are some potential job offers from people who want to tap what he's learned after years of facilitating.