- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 30, 2003

ALEXANDRIA (AP) — A woman who offered five properties worth more than $3.5 million to winners of an online essay contest has canceled the competition after just a few months.

Claudia Johnsen, 79, said not enough people submitted essays and paid the $100 registration fee to maintain her Web site and keep the contest going. Miss Johnsen said she will refund $80 of the fee to each entrant and use the rest of the money to cover her costs.

“I’ve just been heartbroken about it,” she said. “I’m just disappointed. But I’ve spent an awful amount of money for this. … It’s just too expensive.”

Luke Wilbur, president of DCpages.com, which ran the contest, said several hundred thousand people have visited the Web site, USDreamProperties.com, since the contest began in late July. But as of the end of October, only 527 had paid the fee and submitted essays, well short of expectations.

Negative perceptions about online contests might have discouraged people from entering, Mr. Wilbur said.

Miss Johnsen said she paid DCpages.com close to $150,000 to manage the site and advertise the contest in newspapers and on the radio and Internet. Under Virginia law, she had the right to cancel the contest before it was scheduled to end — in summer — if entries fell short.

Miss Johnsen hoped to receive enough entry fees to cover the cost of the contest and to pay her at least the appraised value of the properties.

If the contest had drawn the maximum amount of entry fees allowed by state law, she would have taken in about $24.8 million.

Miss Johnsen, who inherited her property from her father, said she will look for other ways to liquidate her real-estate holdings.

She said she was touched by several essays, including one from a young girl who lived in a poor village in Mexico.

Miss Johnsen said another writer captured the spirit of the competition when he wrote: “Finally, someone has come up with a concept to allow everyone to benefit from another person’s wealth without giving their own wealth away.”

The competition did not break gambling laws because the winners of the five properties would have been picked through the contest rather than by chance.

Miss Johnsen purchased the contest rules and regulations for $750 from a man in New England who had a similar idea for selling his inn. The idea was featured in “The Spitfire Grill,” a 1996 movie in which a small-town cafe in Maine is offered for $100 to the winner of an essay contest.

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