By far, his largest contributions in recent years have gone to Jim Smith and Kevin Kamenetz, Baltimore County's former and current executives, respectively. In 2009, Smith received at least $18,000 from Whalen or his subsidiaries. In 2010, Kamenetz received at least $16,000.

"Obviously you support those people whose philosophy you buy into and who conceptually are supportive of what you're doing," Whalen said.

Former County Council member Berchie Manley said she generally doesn't see eye-to-eye with Whalen on development issues, but appreciates his approach to business.

"Any time a business person is financially successful, you expect them to have more influence and certainly stature within the community," Manley said. "Steve didn't have to be generous to the community, but he has been very generous, and he's done quality work. It's just he and I don't agree on zoning."

Greg Morgan, a longtime Catonsville resident who opposed the Promenade while campaigning for a County Council seat in 2010, said he disagrees with Whalen's vision for Catonsville, but respects his honesty about it.

"I think Steve, as both a person and a businessman, is probably one of the most transparent people I've ever met," said Morgan, who also works in development. "He has opened himself to everybody that has an interest, whether opposing or supportive of a project he does."

For his part, Whalen lets the criticism roll off his back but acknowledged he sometimes gives it right back.

"Having done this now for 31 years, I've developed a thick skin," he said. "The challenge is not to develop a thick head."