For the last several months, Martha Manchester has been engaged in a creative and potentially lucrative contest to give away 47 acres of wilderness in Whitefield, Maine. The idea was simple: In no more than 200 words, describe your plans for this piece of acreage, include a $100 entry fee, and hope for the best. The winning essayist would score a beautiful slice of Maine for a financial pittance.
While entries were rolling in just fine initially, the process hit a snag when local papers reported that the land offered in the contest was assessed at only $57,000. Since Manchester was seeking a minimum number of 3,500 entries (up from her original requirement of 3,000), that would mean she would haul in $350,000 before taxes. When questioned by reporters about this seemingly egregious sum, she explained that the market value of the land was estimated at $150,000. In addition, she also planned to give away $20,000 to charity, plus $5,000 to offset the winner's initial property taxes.
“I need my 3,500 applications or I’m losing money on the land,” she told the Kennebec Journal earlier this month.
While an essay content to win land might seem unusual, this kind of real estate deal is growing in popularity around the United States. A quick search found recent essay contests for a multimillion dollar ranch in Arizona, a 6,200-square-foot log home (with indoor pool) in Indiana, and a 35-acre horse farm in Virginia. In most cases, the owners are looking to reap financial rewards above and beyond what they might get through a tradition sale — and if the interest is high, they will sometimes get it. A similar essay contest in Maine for a historic bed and breakfast that concluded last month netted the owner more than $900,000.
Despite claims of wrongdoing, states like Maine and Virginia do not consider such contests illegal because the winners are judged on skill and are not picked by chance.
Unfortunately for those interested in owning a wooded piece of Maine, the 3,500 minimum entries required by Manchester were never received — and the contest was ended earlier this week. She has promised to refund every entry — and also encouraged anyone with similar plans to think hard before launching an essay contest.
"I wish anybody who tries the approach to give away their land with an essay all the luck in the world," she wrote, describing the painstaking filing process she went through with every entry received. "In addition to all the work involved, it came with the expense of lawyers' fees, advertising fees and Internet fees."
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