This could be how the world ends for the Center for the New West -- not with a bang or even a whimper, but with a chipper recorded voice stating that the number you have dialed is a dead soldier. Has the Denver-based think tank, once one of the most influential organizations pushing economic development in the West, issued its last boosterish sound bite?
John Maddox, the center's CEO for the past two years, insists that it is simply in a period of reorganization and "getting ready to move forward." The phone problem is news to him, he adds. "I live in Salt Lake City, and our office manager has moved on," he says. "I get to the Denver office fairly often and expect to be there more in the coming weeks as we begin to gear up again."
But Maddox also acknowledges that the organization's activities have dwindled drastically since the merger of its biggest contributor, US West, with Qwest two years ago. Heavily fueled by telecom money, the CNW has been mangled by the upheaval in the industry that spawned it.
Founded in 1988 as the Western States Strategy Center, the CNW began as an effort by US West to develop policy studies concerning the region the phone company had inherited from the breakup of AT&T. In its initial phase, 90 percent of the CNW's funding came from US West, and several executives from the Baby Bell sat on its board of trustees. But the group's guiding force was always its president, Phil Burgess, a former college professor turned policy wonk whose blustery quotability quickly gained attention from the national press.
By the mid-1990s, the CNW had satellite offices in Arizona, California and Washington, D.C., million-dollar government contracts and a staff of close to thirty people, as well as a loose-knit network of dozens of "fellows" and associates, experts in everything from rural culture to energy policy and international barter arrangements. Burgess became the go-to guru for magazine reporters writing think pieces on the booming West. Among other specialties, he became known as an authority on what he called the "Lone Eagle" phenomenon: highly skilled entrepreneurs who'd moved to rural areas but used computers and other technology to serve distant markets.
Critics, though, considered many of the CNW's pet projects to be based more on hype than solid research. They questioned the independence of the nonprofit in light of its continuing reliance on US West funding and a list of proposals extolling telemedicine, telecommuting and the Lone Eagle concept, all of which seemed highly compatible with the let's-get-wired agenda of its largest corporate sponsor ("Winging It," April 11, 1996). Burgess hotly denied that the center was a "stalking horse for US West" -- but his own enthusiastic op-ed pieces hailing the coming telecom "revolution" often failed to disclose that he was a US West employee.
Ironically, the same convergence of forces in the telecom industry that Burgess was celebrating in his columns ultimately consumed his organization. Following US West's merger with Qwest in the summer of 2000, funding for the CNW all but dried up. Burgess, who stepped down from running the operation to work closely with US West CEO Sol Trujillo during the transition period, never returned to the think tank.
"Qwest was never interested in the center at all," says Bob Wurmstedt, former director of communications at the CNW, who left the organization at the same time as Burgess did. "There were a lot of other contributors besides US West, but they were very important. When they pulled out, things got scaled back quite a bit."
Maddox, Burgess's successor, is a political consultant based in Salt Lake City. After he took the helm, the CNW moved to a smaller office in Denver's World Trade Center and went through a series of staff reductions. In recent months, there was one part-time employee, a college student, answering the phones -- then no one at all.
"Once in a while, Maddox came to town, but there wasn't much activity," recalls Wurmstedt, who dropped by the office occasionally. "I don't think there was ever another board meeting after Burgess left. He was the intellectual energy behind it."
Maddox says the CNW is actively seeking federal grants and will continue to focus on energy and water policy, rural communities, infrastructure and technology when it resumes operations. "We have been taking the last several months to look at where the center has been and where we want to go," he says, "as well as reaching out to build financial support."
Burgess, who lives in Maryland, did not respond to requests by phone and e-mail for comment. But the resilient purveyor of technocratic innovation is hardly pounding the pavement in search of work. Next month he will take over the presidency of the National Academy of Public Administration, a federally chartered organization that advises public officials on how to govern effectively.