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Off Limits

Sam Turner

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 Kramer and 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 Giles and 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."

Ringing the Bell -- a non-partisan (though some would say left-leaning) Colorado-based brain bank -- is Wade Buchanan, who was policy director for former governor Roy Romer, and Linda Shoemaker, president of the Brett Family Foundation in Boulder and past president of the Boulder Valley School Board. That tank's most recent project was studying the ten-year-old Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR); Bell's recently released study found that much of the state's current financial distress is directly related to Doug Bruce's baby, which was adopted by voters in 1993.

Of course, the Independence Institute, co-founded by John Andrews, current president of the Colorado Senate and Romer's unsuccessful opponent in 1990, is doing its part to refute that, arguing that TABOR's tax and spending limits have been good for Colorado.

Also in the Public-Policies-R-Us category is the Bighorn Center for Public Policy, founded by Rutt Bridges with some heavyweight help: Lamm is a founding director, and former senator Gary Hart is a policy advisor. Bighorn was responsible for the telemarketing no-call legislation that passed the Colorado Statehouse in 2001 and went national this month. Living up to its non-partisan mantra, the group also supported this year's school-voucher measure.

Thinking hard, too, are the Rocky Mountain Institute, a renewable-energy center in Snowmass whose founder, L. Hunter Lovins, seems to be famous everywhere but here; the Aspen Institute (based in D.C., but with a campus in its namesake town), which hired Walter Isaacson (former chairman and CEO of CNN and managing editor of Time) to lead its mission of "fostering enlightened leadership" -- though he won't be doing it from Colorado; the Center for Energy and Economic Development, which is trying to save the long-term viability of coal-based electricity (no surprise, since it was started in 1992 by the coal and rail industries -- and did you know that this state relies on the hard stuff for 81 percent of its electricity, compared to a national average of 51.8 percent?); and the Colorado Democratic Leadership Council (backed by the D.C. Progressive Policy Institute), which pushes the Democratic agenda -- its recent policy papers tout limiting the power of school boards and teaching the poor how to use the federal Earned Income Tax Credit -- and whose boardmembers have included Romer, former U.S. senator Tim Wirth, state senator Dan Grossman, Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar and former state-senate president Stan Matsunaka.

Then there are the quasi-tanks, which are half policy institute and half industry association. These include the International Research Center for Energy and Economic Development, MindShare Foundation, Mountain States Legal Foundation, Center for African American Policy and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. And the Privacy Foundation, founded by the late Peter Barton, who made his millions through Liberty Media, which is also based at DU.

And just what does all that hard thinking produce?

"It's like asking where the white goes when snow melts. You know there's an influence, but it's hard to quantify," Lamm says. "But I start with the proposition that politicians very seldom cause change; they confirm change that's happened outside the system."


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