It's an idea that's been used often in the United States but in the past was deemed illegal in Canada. But now a family in Grande Prairie, Alta. appears to have hit upon a winning formula that turns buying a property into a skill-testing contest.

If you can write the best essay, and submit it along with a non-refundable cheque for $1,000, you could win a 44-room hotel in Grande Prairie that has been valued by a local real estate firm at $1.5 million. The hotel, which includes a tavern and liquor store, generates $3.4 million in annual revenue, says part-owner Dwight Logan.

Realtors can get a piece of the action, too. If they register with contest organizers and refer the winning entry to the contest, "essentially they become the selling Realtor, and will get one-half of the commissions," says Dale Williams, associate broker with Tom Shields Realty Inc. His company provided the valuation of the hotel.

Logan, a former mayor of Grande Prairie, says the York Hotel is a family business that was built by his father in 1948. "It was considered the premier hotel in Alberta north of Edmonton," he says. It's been continuously run by the family since then."

But Logan says there's no one in the next generation who is interested in continuing the family business, so the decision was made to sell the hotel. It was listed for sale for awhile but did not sell.

Logan's wife suggested the idea for the essay contest after watching the 1996 movie, The Spitfire Grill. In the movie, a contest is held to sell a restaurant. Several similar events have been held in the United States over the years.

It has also been tried in Canada, but at least two essay contests in Ontario in the 1990s were shut down by the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP). In the June 1996 issue of REM, a real estate business publication, it was reported that the owners of a 35-acre horse farm held a contest and collected 500 entries at a fee of $100 each.

But Staff Sergeant Larry Moodie of OPP's illegal gaming section read about the contest in a newspaper and determined that the contest was in violation of the criminal code of Canada. Although the farm owners said they had legal advice prior to launching the contest, Moodie told REM that the lawyers "didn't know what they were talking about because they're wrong and I'm right." Moodie is now retired.

Since then, Logan says, "I don't think the law has changed, but what may be the difference is that we have absolutely no element of chance in this contest. This is a test of skill. The parallel for us is a golf tournament or a curling bonspiel, where people pay an entry fee and the best one wins a significant prize. Those contests are all legal."

He says organizers checked with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission, and also received a legal opinion before they began marketing the contest.

Full information about the contest is available online at www.hotelinvitational.com. There are three essay topics, and entries must be no more than 250 words long. They will be judged individually on content, style and originality. The winner gets the hotel, and there are also cash prizes ranging from $2,000 to $15,000 for nine runners-up. The organizers have also pledged to give $250,000 to local charities.

A maximum of 3,000 entries will be allowed. The website says "if insufficient entries are received, then entry funds will be returned to the entrants, minus a $100 handling fee." Logan says a minimum of about 2,100 entries are necessary.

"We're happy with the amount of traffic we're getting on our website, but actual registrations are a bit lower than what we thought it would be," he says. The contest is open until April 12, and Logan says although "our experts say we are on pace (to receive enough entries), I want it to go faster."

The Logan family has formed a new company, Cornerstone Opportunities, to run the contest, and plans to turn it into a full-time business if it's successful.

"If this works, it's a new tool that can be used to market properties," says Logan. "That's one of the reasons why we formed an alliance with a real estate company right at the beginning, because we didn't want to create the impression that we were bypassing traditional marketing mechanisms."

He says that although the new company expects to see others copying the idea, "that's when our reputation will come in -- it's one of the reasons why we have been so careful with the judging and receiving of the money ... that's what we hope will give us an edge on imitators."

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