Essay finalists for 30th Great American Think-Off announced

Essay finalists will debate what is more important, the economy or environment, at the 30th Annual Great American Think-Off.

GATO Debate 2018.JPG
Finalists debate in the 2018 Great American Think-Off.
Contributed / New York Mills Regional Cultural Center

NEW YORK MILLS — The New York Mills Regional Cultural Center announced four finalists from the essay contest portion of the 30th Annual Great American Think-Off. These four finalists will participate in a live debate in New York Mills on June 10.

The four finalists are (in alphabetical order): Gretchen Mayer of Mansfield, South Dakota; Douglas McClain of Fergus Falls, Minnesota; Allen Taylor of Colorado Springs, Colorado; and Timur Usenov of Maple Grove, Minnesota. These four essayists each win $500 and a weekend trip to New York Mills in June to participate in the live philosophical debate.

During the debate, the finalists will defend their essays, arguing their side of the question, “Which is more important to protect: the environment or the economy?” Mayer and McClain assert that the environment is more important to protect, while Taylor and Usenov argue that protecting the economy is more important.

The debate among the four armchair philosophers is June 10 at 7 p.m. The finalists will be available to meet the public at the Great American Think-Off Kick-Off event the evening of June 9 at the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center during a Philosophers and Artists Reception from 6-8 p.m. This reception is free to attend and open to all. To celebrate the Think-Off’s 30th anniversary, weather permitting, an outdoor live music event is being planned to follow the reception.

The 2023 finalists bring a variety of learned and lived experiences to the stage in New York Mills to aid in the defense of their positions. The inclusion of personal experience has always been a requirement of the essay and debate contest.


  • Gretchen Mayer graduated with a master’s degree in sociology and, after a long stint in social work and as executive director of the Diversity Committee, found her true calling as a journalist. Now retired, Gretchen divides her time watching the moody ocean of the Gulf of Mexico and the windswept prairie of South Dakota.
  • Doug McClain is from Fergus Falls where he works as a wildlife biologist. He is a graduate of Muskingum University and Southern Illinois University. While not native to Minnesota, Doug has taken a liking to all things winter and outdoors, including ice fishing and curling, and hunting, hiking and camping with his family.
  • Allen Taylor, a professional photographer and long-haul truck driver from Colorado Springs, is a self-described "information sponge," and spends much of his 14-hour workday considering national and local hot-topic issues. Allen is a Minnesotan recently transplanted to Colorado Springs, where he lives with his fiancé Trish and his dog Milo.
  • Timur Usenov is a high school senior living in Maple Grove and a soon-to-be college student at the University of Minnesota. Timur has been participating in speech and debate for four years because of his love of public speaking and his strong passion for writing. Timur has always enjoyed political and philosophical questions and aspires to become an author/lawyer.

The public is invited to attend the live debate in New York Mills on June 10 to witness these four armchair philosophers engage in lively civil discourse. All audience members are invited to cast their vote for who they think makes the best argument. The winner will earn the title of America’s Greatest Thinker for 2023.

Tickets to attend the live debate are $12 in advance or $15 at the door; students are $5. The debate is held in the NYM Public School Auditorium. A reception honoring the finalists is held at the cultural center immediately following the debate and is open to all.

Want to know more? Several “Pop-Up Think-Offs” are being planned in the New York Mills area in the coming weeks to give local residents a chance to share their thoughts, engage in conversation and win some prizes leading up to the live debate on June 10. Dates and locations will be announced soon.

For more information or to buy tickets, call the cultural center at 218-385-3339, visit the center's website at or get tickets online at .

Perham Focus newsroom
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