What’s the price of a dream?

According to one innkeeper in western Maine, $125, no more than 200 words and a postage stamp will do.

More than two decades after a Maine couple gave away the Center Lovell Inn and Restaurant to the winner of an essay contest, the woman who won the quaint year-round inn with views of the White Mountains will once again offer up the 12-acre property to a hopeful, persuasive entrant in the same unorthodox way.

“There’s a lot of very talented people in the restaurant business who would like to have their own place but can’t afford it,” said Janice Sage, who took possession of the business in 1993 after dashing off a few handwritten paragraphs that would change her life. “This is a way for them to have the opportunity to try.”

When she was selected to take over the property from Bil and Susie Mosca in 1993, the contest drew national and international attention, including a segment on the “Phil Donahue Show.” Entries from around the world flowed in, followed by questions of its legality.

It also triggered a property-as-prize fad, with subsequent contests to give away homes and businesses achieving mixed results. In some cases, the gambit cost owners more than they reaped, and drew scrutiny from authorities concerned the setup constituted a lottery, or illegal gambling, according to news reports at the time.

But Sage, 68, isn’t worried.

Because the essay relies on skill, not luck, it has been deemed legal in Maine, and the Maine State Police already have given her the go-ahead.

She hopes to receive 7,500 responses, or about $900,000, about what local real estate agents suggested as a listing price for the 210-year-old inn and two outbuildings overlooking Kezar Lake in Lovell. It is also an amount that would allow Sage to transition smoothly into retirement, her ultimate goal.

She also hopes the novel approach will ensure that the inn will land in worthy hands.

“I’ve never been known to do anything the normal way,” she said. “I just want to pass it on for someone else.”

In her carefully laid-out rules, Sage included some hint of a contingency plan if her contest falls flat, reserving the right to both return the fees, or keep them, even if she does not meet her 7,500 goal.

Although Sage’s contest borrows heavily from the contest she won years ago, it differs in one key way: She will not return entries if she exceeds her goal.

“If I get more entries, all the better,” she said.

Sage will read all of the essays and narrow the list to 20 finalists before turning them over to two unnamed judges, who will select the winner.


Entries are to be postmarked by May 7, and must arrive at the Center Lovell Post Office no later than May 17. Sage plans to announce her successor May 21.

The Moscas, who charged $100 to enter, came up with the novel approach after realizing that the real estate market in the early 1990s likely wouldn’t yield what they believed was a fair price for their business and that many prospective buyers wouldn’t be able to come up with the 20 percent to 40 percent down payment banks were requiring.

Sage said that in 1993, when a friend told her about the contest, she was managing a 50,000-square-foot restaurant in Maryland.

She put pen to blue-lined paper, and in about an hour, had completed her entry.

“Then I kept going over it and changing it,” she said. “Then I went back to my original, and mailed it.”

Exactly what Sage wrote remained a secret until Bil Mosca, who retained the copyright to Sage’s entry, published it in Yankee Magazine after she won.


The only original contest judge who remains alive said it would be foolhardy to ape what Sage wrote. He also advised would-be entrants to be honest, straightforward, and avoid the absurd.

“Don’t do anything wacky,” J.R. Hardenburgh said. “You really want to focus on your intent, your content, and what it takes to run an inn.”

The contest exceeded the Moscas’ expectations, raising about $700,000, only $500,000 of which they could keep because of the rules they laid out for their contest.

The Moscas, who still live in Lovell, are not involved in this contest. But when Bil Mosca heard the inn would once again be given away, he was pleased.

Whether it’s something about the picturesque setting or the idyllic notion of running a bed-and-breakfast in New England, Mosca is totally confident Sage’s contest will succeed as his did before.

On the other hand, letting go of a business and a home was for him akin to giving away a daughter on her wedding day, and putting to rest any nagging doubts of whether the match was right.

“What if you get the wrong person or what if this person lies to you?” he said, repeating a question he fielded over and over, 22 years ago. “Our answer was and is, ‘We trust.’ It was part of the magic of this whole thing. And it turned out we were right.”