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Bill Bowen's baby: for four years Bill Bowen has been talking up a think tank for Arkansas, but will it succeed?

Bill Bowen's Baby

For Four Years Bill Bowen Has Been Talking Up A Think Tank For Arkansas, But Will It Succeed?

Dressed in an elegant tuxedo, a dapper Bill Bowen began fund-raising efforts early this October for his latest brainchild: the proposed Arkansas Research Center, the state's first world-class think tank.

At an Excelsior Hotel banquet seating 525 of Arkansas' movers and shakers, the First Commercial CEO unveiled public details of the project, complete with a Steve Barnes-moderated slide show, a sophisticated jazz band and a witty keynote address by Sen. Dale Bumpers. Most of the listeners -- many of whom revolve around First Commercial's 35-member National Advisory Board -- paid $100 a head to attend, all to be donated to the think tank.

"I hope it's a good idea, and I hope it will work, and I hope it can," Bowen says of the proposal. "We need to be careful that this idea is implemented wisely and fairly."

If it succeeds as planned -- and if it even closely approximates the success of North Carolina's Research Triangle Institute, which began as a research center in 1958 but has brought $900 million in research contracts to that rural state -- it will be Bill Bowen's greatest legacy to Arkansas.

But Arkansas' past is littered with idealistic projects and research papers that do little more than collect shelf space. Supporters already worry the think tank will be undone if it is perceived as too much an extension of Bill Bowen and First Commercial and are taking measures to overcome that perception.

Bowen has stated he won't head up the center's 50-member board of directors, a board purposely chosen to represent a broad, demographic cross section of Arkansas. As well, funding will come from an estimated $5 million endowment, with additional annual donations from philanthropic groups and maximum $25,000 gifts from any individual board member. In essence, Bowen says, no one figure or group will dominate the center's focus.

One who is taking a wait-and-see attitude is Worthen Banking Corp.'s CEO Curt Bradbury. An attempt by Bowen to get Worthen Bank involved in the initial fund raising failed.

"It looks awfully partisan to me because of the involvement of First Commercial and the NAB," says Bradbury, who declined to buy a corporate table for the banquet. "I'm going to have to understand what the mission is and where the support is going to come from. It's certainly clear that Worthen can't support it if it's going to have First Commercial all over it."

In addition, the idea of think tanks seems to be catching on in the state, and competition for scarce, private funds has already started with two other similar projects underway.

Over 200 Nationwide

The Brookings Institute estimates there are over 200 think tanks nationwide with annual budgets of $1 million or more. NAB's Arkansas Research Center estimates its proposed budget needs at least $500,000 annually.

It is not alone.

The University of Central Arkansas is planning to launch the Arch W. Ford Institute for the Study of Educational Policy within the next six months. The institute will focus strictly on educational issues and is seeking an eventual endowment of $5 million from the private sector.

And Gov. Bill Clinton's Commission for Arkansas' Future -- kicked off in the spring of 1989 -- has hopes of eventually blending taxpayer and private giving to the tune of $250,000 per year. To date, the Commission has been funded with $50,000 from the governor's emergency fund, some free furniture and office space, but no cash from private sources.

Representatives from both groups downplay competing with Bowen's center for contributions and accent instead their differences. But one area business leader contacted by all three groups questioned what he saw as needless duplication.

"The two things are not the same," says John Ward, a spokesman for UCA. "So the turf concerns are not so serious. Our sole focus will be education."

Originally conceived in February 1989 as a faculty chair to commemorate Arch Ford, who served 25 years as commissioner of the Arkansas Department of Education, the UCA project has evolved into a full-fledged, stand-alone education research center.

"We haven't asked anybody for money at this point," Ward says. But a meeting Sept. 28 to discuss the project was attended -- among others -- by Bowen, Steve Stephens of Stephens Inc. and Alltel Corp.'s CEO Joe Ford, son of Arch Ford. All represent big money.

Unlike the Arch Ford Institute, the Commission for Arkansas' Future has aspirations that are broad-based like Bowen's group but differ in the activist focus, says Pat Lile, executive director.

"This is one of the most exciting things the state has ever seen," bubbles Lile. Legislated in March 1989, the Commission combines state and private funding in a 50-50 match with the emphasis on setting up a communications loop between the politicians and the people.

"There is not a single report that has been put out that has produced what the authors wanted. Reports alone won't change the state. Information alone is not motivational."

Lile talks nonstop, full of almost overwhelming energy as she outlines her vision of coordinating year-round meetings with groups across the state. She points with pride to a flowchart wrapped around a drawing of Arkansas with boxes labelled "Retreat For Elected Leaders," "Multi-Media Product," "Local Study Groups," etc.

"I'm a pragmatic visionary," Lile says with enthusiasm. "The future is a moving target."

But the legislature is not as enthused. Private sector dollars to fund Lile's vision are temporarily stymied because the General Assembly hasn't financed the program.

Ironically for Lile, money would have been plentiful if a proposed blending of the Governor's Commission and Bowen's think tank in early 1989 had occurred, but the effort collapsed.

A Long History Of Antagonism

The NAB's 1988 report had endorsed the idea of a think tank and reasoned that, in spite of earlier troubles, a dollar-for-dollar matching fund with the General Assembly was the way to go.

"Arkansas has a long history of antagonism between business and government, and therefore finds it difficult to accept the concept of private/public partnership," says the report. It called for Arkansas to overcome this roadblock, and in late 1988 and early 1989 an attempt was made to wed Bowen and the NAB to Act 810 which would create Lile's Commission.

The synthesis failed, however, and Bowen declines to comment directly on what happened. By way of explanation, he says politicians are elected to represent their constituents' interest.

"Read the act," Bowen instructs. "If you try to mingle tax dollars with private sector dollars you politicize the project."

In reading Act 810, one thing is clear -- political control of the commission's structure is paramount. The legislation ensures that the governor appoints most of the commission and the Arkansas Senate and House are equally represented, with senior legislators making those appointments. In other words, political backscratching across the board -- a far cry from the independent, nonpartisan body the NAB recommended.

Undaunted, Bowen apparently continued to press forward and, by the spring of 1990, the NAB announced in a hastily called press conference that a think tank was in the planning stages.

More Than Just A Research Report

All that leaves the question of what exactly will the Arkansas Research Center do?

As currently envisioned, the center will issue an annual State of the State report; attempt to disseminate "good news" about the state; lure visiting intellectuals to Arkansas to network with others; and be a learning and information center.

An obvious elaboration of existing NAB annual reports compiled on Arkansas issues since 1972, the research center hopes to be more than a slick, annual report glanced over quickly and filed on a shelf.

For example, Bowen says a visiting professor in toxic wastes could be lured on sabbatical to the National Center for Toxicological Research to bring knowledge, skills and relationships to the still-budding project.

One caveat: Bowen cautions the center won't be a lobbying group.

"If you do, then you politicize it," Bowen says of an action he views as fatally wounding the institute's objectivity. "It's done. You're shot down."

Asked about how the center will disseminate "good news" about the state, Bowen says only that details have yet to be worked out.

Despite all this, questions remain. Without lobbying, and without actively embracing government, how will the center have a substantial influence on the state's future?

One thing is clear. Choosing the right director will be crucial. Bowen says the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research went through two directors before finding success with its third.

"Two factors extremely important to the early life of these groups is, one, a clear mission statement and, two, who they employ as executive director," says Gerry Hancock, founding chairman in 1977 of the North Carolina Center.

Hancok's NCCPPR's third director has remained for 10 years.

"Ask Me About My Think Tank"

As talkative and proud of his center as a new grandparent, Hancock still seems compelled to boast about Bowen:

"What Mr. Bowen has done is extraordinary. It's an enormous amount of work. This is not just another committee -- it can have an incredible impact.

"You're creating a group that commands the respect of leadership in the state."

Locally, one who wishes Bowen's project well -- perhaps surprisingly -- is Jack Stephens.

Bowen and Stephens crossed in 1982 when First Commercial was initially formed and a Stephens-led group attemptep to buy the bank. Bowen apparently viewed the potential takeover as deeply hostile and charges of the Stephens' using insider information flew for days before the Stephens backed dow. Since that time, most obserers have characterized the as bitter enemies.

Questioned about the research center and concerns that some might perceive it as being tainted by Bowen's influence, Jack Stephens is blunt.

"The thing we've got to get over in Little Rock is where ideas come from," Stephens says. "Good ideas stand on their own merits. I don't worry about where the hell they come from.

"I hope it proves to be very successful."

So does Bill Bowen.

PHOTO : KICKING IT OFF: Senator Dale Bumpers delivered the keynote speech at a fund-raising banquet Oct. 12, 1990 for the proposed ARKANSAS RESEARCH CENTER, the state's first world-class think tank.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related article on think tank success stories
Author:Walker, Wythe, Jr.; Ford, Kelly
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Oct 29, 1990
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