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Alaska lottery fundraiser hits the jackpot

Jan 1, 2009, 11:41 pm

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With a half-million-dollar payoff as the lure, a lottery of unprecedented scale in Alaska has proven immensely popular, with tickets selling out in shops across the state as the initially scheduled drawing time approached Wednesday evening, according to organizers.

In the end, though, late-arriving ticket stubs from the Bush prompted organizers to postpone the drawing a week.

But liquor stores, pull-tab parlors and restaurants in nearly 30 communities had already sold about 130,000 tickets at $5 apiece by midafternoon, said Abe Spicola, owner of Lucky Times Pull Tabs in Spenard, which organized the event.

"All our communities basically sold out of all their tickets," said Spicola, a former state gaming investigator. "Basically, I had always (known) that lotteries were allowed in Alaska under general gaming laws; it's just that no nonprofit organization has ever put one on before."

The event, run in partnership with Standing Together Against Rape, is billed as "Alaska's First $500,000 Lottery" and the gaming public apparently liked the odds. Outside Lucky Times Wednesday evening, pedestrians and haphazardly parked cars snarled traffic in the parking lot. Dozens of people lined up inside to scribble their names and phone numbers intently on ticket stubs while the line at times backed up almost to the door as a steady stream of customers paraded in.

Among them was Jeffri Stangl, a 44-year-old homemaker, who showed up to buy two tickets after hearing about the lotto from her sister-in-law.

"Honestly, I just got a PFD check too, so it's kind of like, take a chance on $10, you know?" Stangl said. "I hope to get lucky and it's also supporting a good cause."

Raffles and lotteries can only operate in Alaska on behalf of a charity, which must get at least 10 percent of what's left after the prize, said Johanna Bales, deputy director of the tax division with the state Department of Revenue.

STAR has a gaming license and was looking to raise some money for community education, said executive director Nancy Haag.

"We've done our own personal raffles -- not on this magnitude -- and I know that the lottery/raffle is not something that has been done in Anchorage before," Haag said.

Although ticket sales have been booming, if Lucky Times and STAR had started earlier, they could have brought in even more money from the lotto this year, she and Spicola said, but they expect future events to be more fruitful.

Bales said her division is watching the lotto, which has the largest prize in Alaska to date, and will likely audit it in the end to ensure things were done by the books. Though the lotteries are for charity, lotto operators can get an "operators fee," considered an expense, so they can make a profit, Bales said. There is no limit on the jackpots, so, theoretically, Alaska could even see a multimillion-dollar lottery, she said.

Could this pave the way for more high-dollar charitable lotteries?

"You know, that kind of depends on what happens here," Bales said. "It's really hard to tell. I know that in the past some operators have talked about doing something this large but felt like there wasn't really the population base for this size of a jackpot, but that was several years ago."

Spicola agrees that the state can't support a mega lotto, but he does think it can support a bit more. In coming years, he hopes to offer a $1 million jackpot split between drawings on New Year's Eve and the Fourth of July. He also said he plans to print 500,000 tickets for future drawings and, if he sells them all, give STAR a $500,000 payout rather than 10 percent.

If a lottery operator fails to raise the money needed for the prize, state law requires it to either postpone the drawing to get it or refund the sold tickets, Bales said.

Behind the counter at Lucky Times, Spicola's wife and co-owner, Heidi Spicola, was busy helping a steady stream of customers. She said coming up short isn't likely to be an issue, at least this time around.

"We're good. We're good," she said. "We knew that it was going to be successful; we just knew that it was going to be a lot of work too. It's been a big learning experience, but we're up to the challenge. We're still young."

Tickets will remain on sale, in Anchorage at least, until the lottery's drawing, now scheduled for Friday, Jan. 9, at 7 p.m. at Rumrunners Old Towne Bar downtown.

Bev Smith takes money and hands out tickets for Alaska's $500,000 Lotto at Lucky Times Pull-tabs, Dec. 31, 2008.
Bev Smith takes money and hands out tickets for Alaska's $500,000 Lotto at Lucky Times Pull-tabs, Dec. 31, 2008.

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