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Epoca Essay Contest For Inn

The tale of the Center Lovell Inn in Maine and its essay have almost become folklore, attracting dozens of property owners with similar ideas.

Last winter, one of the harshest on record in New England, Janice Sage decided she no longer wanted to run the Maine inn she had owned for two decades.

The Center Lovell Inn, which borders the White Mountains of New Hampshire, was more than 200 years old when Sage acquired it in 1993. To sell it, she did not enlist a real estate agent, or place an ad in any traditional sense. Instead, she sold the inn the same way the previous owner had: by holding an essay contest.

Sage, who then went by Jan Cox, made national headlines after she and her husband at the time paid a $100 entry fee and wrote an essay that made them the proud owners of the inn.

Since then, the tale of the inn has almost become folklore, attracting dozens of property owners with similar ideas. Some want a more personal way to sell properties with sentimental value. Others want to get rid of homes quickly. Others hope a popular contest brings in more than they might make from a conventional sale.

But more often than not, the dream of running a quaint essay contest runs into reality. For starters, many contests are unsuccessful; this was Sage’s second try. An earlier essay contest went nowhere.

Still, many seem undeterred. Karim Lakhani, associate professor who studies online communities and contests at Harvard Business School, said social media and the Internet had made it easier for contests like these to reach a critical mass of people who are willing to pay a nominal fee for a chance.

“This looks like a lottery,” meaning the risk is low and the reward high, Lakhani said. “From the participation point of view, it’s ‘I can put in a few hundred bucks and get a chance to get a house.’ Who wouldn’t want to do that?”

Accusations

The Maine contest was supposed to have a seamless ending for Sage and the winner, Prince Adams. Sage netted more than $906,000, and Adams, a restaurant owner from the Virgin Islands, won the inn in June after paying $125 to enter the contest.

In fewer than 200 words, Adams wrote of his experience in the hospitality industry, and compared the work to his marriage. “A successful marriage requires passion, hospitality and commitment,” he wrote. “Perhaps the same is true for this venture.”

The 1993 contest had garnered national attention through television reports and newspaper articles; the 2015 version raced across the Internet and social media and drew more than 7,000 entries, about the same number as in 1993.

But just as social media can spur interest, it can also increase criticism. The announcement of a winner drew so many accusations that the contest was rigged that a Facebook group called the Center Lovell Contest Fair Practices Commission was established.

“I believe that the essay contest was deceptively advertised, and that many hopeful and trusting people were taken advantage of,” one critic wrote on the inn’s Facebook page.

Fifteen complaints were lodged with the Maine attorney general’s office, which led to an inquiry by the State Police. The agency spent four weeks reviewing the rules, the selection process and complaints about the 1993 contest, which had prompted its own inquiry. It determined Sage had run a game of skill, which is legal in the state, and not a game of luck like a lottery, which is not.

Her troubles seem to have abated, but Adams is still dealing with his. In an interview, he said he was being harassed by people who thought that they should have won the inn or that he had broken the rules.

“We’ve had disgruntled people calling in,” Adams said. After The Boston Globe published his essay, one commenter accused him of breaking the rules by not writing a double-spaced piece. Others have complained that Sage favored entrants with innkeeping experience.

Taking over the inn, he added, was a lot of work: “There were a lot of things we didn’t know going into it,” Adams said.

In a follow-up email, he was more forthcoming about what he called “the sad part of ‘winning’ the contest.”

“They persist on making our lives difficult by giving fake one-star reviews on TripAdvisor,” he wrote of losing contestants, “paying us nasty visits and phone calls, etc. However, the majority of the essay entrants that contact us with well wishes are fantastic.”

Undeterred

The saga has not appeared to deter others. The owners of a goat-cheese farm in Alabama have held a contest for their farmstead, complete with sheep and goats; owners in Marlin, Texas, offered their home for a winning essay and $1; and Realtor Michael Wachs put up his house in Houston. (In a twist, a woman tried to sell her grandmother’s home in Maryland for $100 and a chocolate recipe.) But those contests were halted after failing to accumulate the thousands of entries the owners needed to cover the cost of the prizes. The long process of refunding entry fees then began.

In rural Virginia, Carolyn Berry, 62, a teacher, said she had followed the different iterations of the Maine contest before she and her husband, Randy, decided on a contest for their 35-acre horse farm. She said they initially resisted selling the farm, but eventually agreed to an essay contest for $200 an entry.

The couple has enjoyed reading essays from people who envision a different future for the hobby farm. One essay detailed a willingness to start a home for injured war veterans; another wanted to turn the farm into a quilting studio, Berry said. Reading essays and assuring interested parties about the contest’s integrity take about four hours a day.

“We’ve had to overcome the thing with the Center Lovell Inn,” she said, “the suspicion that this was rigged, so that’s been a detriment to us.”

Berry said she hired a trustee who accepts entries and removes any identifying details, making the essays anonymous before they are forwarded to the couple. A panel of anonymous judges will decide the winner from 25 finalists chosen by the couple. Berry said she and her husband would have to accept the panel’s choice; they cannot override the decision.

To prevent legal problems, Berry created a Facebook page and a Google database of information — and lengthy rules — for prospective entrants. On another Facebook page, she keeps track of similar sweepstakes around the country. There are a bed-and-breakfast in Virginia, a nine-room country inn in Vermont and a brick home in Ontario. At one point, Berry said, she was following 20 contests.

She has amassed 3,000 of the 5,000 entries she said the couple needed to earn $1 million for the farm; the money would cover taxes — “35 percent right off the top goes to the federal government,” she said — and help the couple buy a small home to retire. If they do not meet their goal, they might accept fewer entries, or send out refunds, Berry said.

Wachs, the Houston Realtor, was inspired by the Center Lovell Inn, and even submitted an essay. He then held his own contest, hoping for a fast transaction and maybe some publicity on a local blog. Instead, he received so much attention that it crashed his website. But the online attention did not add up to entries: Wachs ended his contest after about a month because he did not receive enough. In the end, he refunded the entry fees and sold his house the conventional way.

Prince and Rose Adams wrote touchingly of marriage and hospitality for a global essay contest to win a 210-year-old Maine inn.

That was the easy part.

In a head-scratching reversal of human migratory patterns, the Adams family will pack up and leave the US Virgin Islands for their first-ever trip to Maine. Oh, and they haven’t seen snow for a decade.

“This is a crazy, crazy, crazy journey,” Prince Adams said by telephone Friday.

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The couple were chosen last week from thousands of entrants in an essay contest to collect the keys to the Center Lovell Inn, a classic New England hostelry and restaurant with a view of the White Mountains.

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Read the winning essay

Prince Adams and his wife, Rose, were chosen last week from thousands of entrants to collect the keys to the Center Lovell Inn

Prince and Rose Adams, both 45, think they know the drill: The Caribbean restaurant they run in St. John requires long days, plenty of passion, and a genuine desire to entertain people — traits they will need in abundance at the seven-room, labor-intensive inn three hours north of Boston.

“We love pleasing our customers — that’s key — and we’ve been cooking together since we’ve known each other, which is 26 years,” Rose said.

That love is certain to be tested. Maybe it’s when the pipes freeze, or the snowed-in driveway needs to be shoveled, or the inn’s beams and joints complain about their creaking age.

But that is for another time. For now, the Brooklyn, N.Y., natives and their 10-year-old son are welcoming a reacquaintance with snow, and cold, and a cycle of seasons.

“We’ve been trying to go back to the East Coast,” Prince said. “I thought, ‘If this is an opportunity to go back home, I’ll put my 200 words together.’ We’re not as beachy as we thought we were.”

The departing innkeeper, Janice Sage, won the rambling bed and breakfast 22 years ago in much the same way. She was managing a busy Maryland restaurant, wanted a change, and heard about an essay contest to win the inn.

When thoughts of retirement beckoned more than two decades later, Sage gave the formula another try. She bumped up the entry fee to $125 from $100 and called for a maximum of 7,500 entries to be judged by an anonymous, local panel.

At $125 apiece, those entries would cover the property’s estimated value of $900,000. Sage said she received fewer than 7,500 essays, but that she received enough to make retirement possible.

Sage said she hoped to pass along the Center Lovell Inn to someone who envisioned more than a business attachment. She found that bond in an essay that began: “Twelve years ago, we embarked on the journey of painstakingly converting a dilapidated building into a charming guesthouse and restaurant.”

The decision was made, and Rose Adams heard the news on the morning of June 6 — between bites of an egg sandwich in a waterside apartment with spectacular views of Coral Bay.

“At first I thought it was a dinner reservation,” Rose said. “Within 2 seconds, I realized what it was. I started choking on my egg sandwich and said, ‘I’ll get my husband.’ ”

The deal was done, and Sweet Plantains, their restaurant in St. John, will close on Saturday. The couple hopes to open for business by July 10 in Center Lovell, where they will continue to operate the dining room that kept Sage busy for so long.

Rose will be the chef, and Prince will flex his mixology muscle to concoct many of the rum drinks available at Sweet Plantains. The restaurant also will rely heavily on local, fresh foods, Prince said.

“From what I’ve been researching on-line, they have really great produce, lots of organic farms, and all those things we love. We can put together an awesome menu,” Prince said.

The adventure is about to begin — marathon days and all.

“If you love what you’re doing, it doesn’t seem that cumbersome,” Rose said. “Our son was born in a hurricane, there have been water outages, and I’ve cooked in the dark. You talk about the work hours — they’re intense — but frankly I wouldn’t trade it.”

There might be one trade Prince would make. He promised his son two years ago that he could have a Great Dane dog — “the size of a horse’” — if they ever moved to a “big, big, big, big house.”

Now they have that house, and a promise is a promise.

“I’m trying to convince him to get a Chihuahua,” Prince said with a chuckle.

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com.

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