Raffle fever rolls across Alaska

Kyle Hopkins

Diagnosis: Lotto fever.

Anchorage gaming gurus plan to hold at least five big-money raffles over the next year, with jackpots of $50,000 to $500,000.

In Fairbanks, a city councilwoman wonders if her city can sponsor a lottery of its own and use the cash to lower property taxes and pay firefighters.

The trend began after a Jan. 9 drawing organized by Lucky Times Pull Tabs owner Abe Spicola sold more than 100,000 tickets across the state.

"Abe opened up Pandora's box. Proved to the (Revenue) Department and to people like me, 'Hey, people will pay $5 a ticket for a big jackpot,' " said Jack Powers, owner of Tudor Road Bingo. Powers is already selling tickets for a drawing in March, and plans to market as many as five lotteries this year.

Not all the fledging raffles can survive, organizers say, and rivalries are already brewing. But for now, businesses, nonprofits and ticket buyers caught in a tumbling economy see easy money.

Less than a block away from Spicola's Spenard Road pull tab parlor Friday, Carl Tarkington stood beneath the awning of the restaurant where he works. A pair of earphones lay against his black chef's jacket.

Tarkington didn't hear about the half-million dollar lottery until he saw a group of co-workers huddled together, listening for the winning number.

"Dude. ... When I heard about it, and I heard about how much money it was, I was kicking myself in the ass because I could have spent that three or four dollars to win that much money," he said.

Well, tickets were $5.

"That's fine with me," Tarkington said, his break nearly finished. "I'd rather give up five to win $500,000!"

He'll get his chances.

FIRST TEST

Powers got his start in gaming with a pull tab, or "rippies," parlor called "Jack the Ripper" in 1989, he said. He describes himself as "marketer, a salesman and ex-Amway guy" and this year he's ready to dive into the raffle game.

He sold 200 tickets a day last week for his March 31 drawing, in which a pair of winners will get $50,000 each, with a slice of the ticket sales going to the nonprofit Fur Rendezvous festival, he said. Next he's thinking of splitting a quarter-million-dollar jackpot among multiple winners in July.

"Historically, when the economy goes down, people have less money, they're going to spend a couple dollars and chase that pot of gold," he said.

Alaska has no state lottery. But these drawings -- technically they're raffles -- are allowed under state law as long as a portion of the money goes to charity.

Spicola, a former gaming investigator, has a head start. Along with Standing Together Against Rape, he raised more than $600,000 by selling 121,000 tickets.

The tale took a bizarre turn when a convicted sex offender won the jackpot meant to benefit victims of sexual abuse and was later attacked near a local mall, but both Spicola and STAR plan to make the lottery an annual event.

You can't pick who wins, Spicola said.

The jackpot for the Jan. 9 raffle was $500,000. State law says nonprofits must get at least 10 percent of the money left after the payout.

Spicola recently cut a check to STAR for $10,000 which, based on the number of tickets reported sold, would be just shy of the 10 percent threshold.

Spicola says the nonprofit will get more -- up to another $2,000 -- as the organizers finish up their paper work this month.

As many as 500,000 tickets will go on sale for the next STAR lottery as early as this month, Spicola said, with the drawing planned for just after midnight on New Year's Eve.

But first, he hopes to hold a $250,000 lottery, also in July, this time teaming up with a nonprofit veterans group.

Meantime, Spicola and Powers both said they'd heard rumblings of a lottery starting out of Fairbanks too.

Turns out, it could come from the city itself.

FAIRBANKS POWERBALL?

Fairbanks City Councilwoman Vivian Stiver said local leaders in a committee meeting talked about holding a lottery back in 2006, when voters slashed property taxes.

The idea never gained hold, but after watching the STAR raffle take root, she looking to see if the city can do the same thing.

"Ideally I would think of something like the Powerball, where you could buy tickets at several locations, maybe convenience stores, whoever would like to handle them," Stiver said.

Say the city gave away $500,000, kept its costs down and made $300,000, she said. "I think it would be worth it. That funds, you know, three firemen for a year."

The idea would have to be formally proposed and approved by the council and Stiver is still doing her research, she said -- looking to see if the city could sell the tickets outside of Fairbanks, for example.

The gaming promoters say there's only room for so many such jackpots and are preparing for a battle of survival. Spicola, the pull-tab owner, expects confusion over which tickets belong to what lottery.

Bingo hall owner Powers says he looks at the drawings as a long-term investment but is ready for anything.

"Hopefully there will only be one lottery, aggressive lottery, operating in the state," he said. "And the state might even shut the whole damn thing down if it gets out of hand."

Find Kyle Hopkins online at adn.com/contact/khopkins or call him at 257-4334.


By KYLE HOPKINS
khopkins@adn.com
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