Winging It

Hype makes right at the center for the new west.

Several former fellows and staffers describe the center as "adrift," "unproductive," beset by money troubles and hamstrung by Burgess's volatile personality and hands-on management style. "It's basically a PR machine for Phil," says one close observer. "He's the bottleneck. Nothing went out the door without his pawprints on it." (Many of the sources contacted by Westword agreed to speak about the center only on condition of anonymity; several said they were reluctant to be identified because of concerns about Burgess's formidable influence in public policy circles.)

Others, though, are quick to rally to Burgess's defense. "I know Phil is a controversial guy, but he was a tremendous mentor," says Andy Bane, the center's former managing director, who left the nonprofit for the private sector earlier this year. "My attitude has always been that anyone worth working for is usually difficult to work for."

Burgess says he's proud of the center's achievements and its "remarkable growth" under his direction, and he expects the future to be even brighter. But he also admits that the center is currently in a period of retrenchment. Revenues dropped by nearly a third after the completion of a million-dollar government contract a couple of years ago, and in the past few months the staff has been cut in half--from 27 to 14 full-time employees located in Denver and satellite offices in Arizona, California, and Washington, D.C. Tax filings for fiscal year 1994, the latest year available, show a net loss of $118,736 on revenues of more than $2 million. Bane says it's in the nature of think tanks to contract and expand their operations, depending on the level of funding.

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"It's like a snake," says Bane. "It's constantly in the molting process."
But Burgess's think tank has left more than a few skins behind. Several of the deep thinkers listed as fellows in its 1995 annual report have since left the operation or haven't played an active role in it for years; several impressively described projects and satellite operations are now either "inactive" or "in transition." Questions about exaggerated claims, fudged research and media manipulation--particularly in relation to Burgess's pet Lone Eagle project--have been raised even by some long-term loyalists.

"The Center for the New West smokes what it grows," says one ex-associate. "They say something is true enough times, and then they believe it."

Burgess, though, remains an untiring booster of the center and the vision it embraces. "The West has always been dissed in the national media," he notes. "It's very important for those of us who want to see balanced growth and economic development to get a different picture out."

Yet the pictures developed by the center may have their own drawbacks--too much hype, overexposure, a tendency to lean to the right, a soft focus. It helps to know who paid for the pictures.

Whose West is it, anyway?
The office of the president of the Center for the New West, on the sixth floor of the World Trade Center in downtown Denver, is lined with plaques, photos and letters of appreciation--the trophies of a career in public life. There's a photo of a beardless Burgess huddling with former governor Dick Lamm, another of Burgess looking pensive on the front page of the Rocky Mountain News.

Behind the president's desk is a portrait of a beardless Abraham Lincoln and a US West poster of cowboys working on horseback. "If you don't make dust, you eat dust," the poster warns.

There's a conspicuous empty space on the wall of memorabilia facing the president's desk. Burgess says the space used to be occupied by a photo of a middle-aged farmer at market, hawking his corn; above the farmer's head a sign reads: A POUND OF CROP IS WORTH A TON OF THEORY. It's a perfect, if at the moment missing, illustration of what the president means when he talks about "peasant knowledge."

"I'm very sympathetic to storytelling," says Burgess. "There are a lot of people who just do data. Somehow you've got to combine stories with data. We've really documented a lot of peasant knowledge."

Folksy anecdotes and pithy sayings come easily to Burgess. They are, after all, his stock in trade. One way to measure a think tank's crop is in terms of the amount of media attention it attracts; by that standard, the Center for the New West is a well-cultivated quote farm, and Burgess is the top producer on the lot. He has the pitchman's ability to reduce tricky concepts to easily digestible sound bites, as well as a bushel of hyperbolic quotes for any topic, whether it's pernicious bureaucracy ("the one-size-fits-all intrusiveness of the federal government has got to stop"), the impact of telecommunications ("the most important issue of my lifetime") or the rise of the Lone Eagle ("the most important lifestyle change since the rise of the two-wage-earner family").

Rather than produce "reports gathering dust on a shelf," the center declares, the group would rather make dust by being "a proactive source for the working press"--which means that it supplies reporters not only with interviews but also with background information, connections to other sources and ideas for future stories, like any eager-to-please public-relations firm.

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