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A Boulder correspondent recently -- and sullenly -- reported that she'd looked at the cheapest house for sale in that town (a 900-square-foot dump), but at $296,000, it was still too pricey.

She, or at least her ego, might have taken less of a beating had she instead entered the Mobile Home Contest, where a $100 entry fee and a short essay buys you the chance to win a three-bedroom, two-bath, 1,000-square-foot piece of the People's Republic.

"I'm not looking for someone to dazzle me with their brilliance," says the home's current owner, Lynda Hilburn. "I just want to give it to someone who really needs it."

But since posting her $44,900 trailer on www.mobilehomecontest.com in April, she hasn't received a single entry. "Nobody has really been interested in my little mobile home," Hilburn says, sighing.

Despite the proliferation of such contests after the 1996 movie The Spitfire Grill really launched the craze, few of them generate enough interest to be financially viable. Two of three Colorado-based contests listed on www.essaycontests.com -- including one for a three-bedroom house in Aurora, a 2000 Cadillac DeVille, $25,000 in cash and a computer -- have been canceled due to lack of entries, and fees refunded (less a handling charge, of course). In order to recover the sale price of her home, plus the new coat of paint she gave it, Hilburn needs 470 people to submit entries. At this point, she's not hopeful.

Despite the odds, some essay contests do work. After trying to sell their Moffat Cafe in Winter Park for $150,000 for over a year, Kathie Kramerand Anne Goodfriend gave it away in an essay contest that fell short of their financial goal but had a high fun factor, according to Goodfriend ("Eat Your Words," November 1, 2001). And Gilesand Kami Kolakowski, owners of Leadville's quaint Ice Palace Inn Bed and Breakfast, are now just 500 essays -- at $230 a pop -- short of their goal of 2,500, so they're pushing back their deadline one more time, to the end of July.

"It has been very stressful for us, because it is almost impossible to make this work," Kami says. The couple has spent more than $30,000 over the past eight months to promote the contest through their Web site (www.win-the-essay-writing-contest.com), mass mailings, advertisements and more.

"I really feel an obligation to do everything that I can to make this work, because owning a bed-and-breakfast is a dream for so many people," she adds. "We have gotten so many touching essays; it's been amazing. I think it's worth it."

As does Jerry Shane. He's planning to give away his $300,000, 32-acre ranch outside Durango -- complete with log home, guest cabin and barn -- sometime next month. In the meantime, all it takes to enter is 200 words, which will be judged by English teachers in Colorado and Arizona for humor and thoughtfulness. "Spelling and grammar and big words don't matter," says Shane.

That essay -- and a hundred-buck entry fee -- still sounds like a better deal than the realtor's asking price of $328 per square foot.

Tanks for the memories:Colorado has a severe case of multiple-personality disorder. How else to diagnose this state's overabundance of think thanks? There's a lot of deep thinking going on here, from everybody's favorite (whether to bash or belong to), the Independence Institute, to World Class Colorado, a fledgling venture started by Aaron Reever and Matthew Faruolo, twenty-somethings long on passion but short on credentials. (Reever is a geologist; maybe he can ask mayor-elect John Hickenlooper for some pointers.)

But no one's given much thought to why so many think tanks have settled in the Centennial State.

Most national databases list the Independence Institute as Colorado's only official tank (usually with a nod to Joe Coors, who helped start the Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Foundation, a favorite of Reaganites). But local directories reference over a dozen organizations, including the Education Commission of the States, which doesn't even consider itself a think tank.

It's easy to understand the confusion. Think tanks were originally known either as brain banks or diplomatic graveyards, institutions usually headquartered in universities where washed-up politicians would be put out to pasture. The term "think tank" wasn't even introduced into the lexicon until after World War II, when it was used to describe defense-related groups created during the war, such as the Research and Development Corporation - also known as the Rand Corporation, which is still in operation. Over the past two decades, though, the number of state-based think tanks more than tripled, growing to at least 110 across the country by 1999, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. And as tanks' ranks and influence grew, their definitions became more general (although in 2001, conservative think tanks outnumbered liberal ones two to one).

Today, anyone who can get non-profit status and secure donations or corporate funding can adopt the think-tank label -- as Governor Bill Owens did for his "center-right" Center for the New American Century, pulling in a guesstimated $500,000 at a reception in January.

"I think think tanks help lead the dialogue on issues politicians don't necessarily want to talk about or are too busy to think about all the alternatives," says Dick Lamm, former governor of Colorado and current co-director of the Institute for Public Policy Studies at the University of Denver. "I don't think every think tank makes a contribution -- some of them are too ideological -- but the Bell Policy Center is doing wonderful work. I think they're leading the dialogue."

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