- Associated Press - Sunday, July 19, 2015

ROCKY MOUNT, Va. (AP) - For $150, you could get more than just a stay at a bed and breakfast - you could own one.

The owners of the Claiborne House Bed and Breakfast in Rocky Mount are selling their place in a somewhat unconventional manner: an essay contest.

All the aspiring innkeepers out there need only write 250 words on what owning a B&B; would mean to them and pay a $150 entry fee to be in the running.

Innkeeper Shellie Leete said she and her husband tried to sell the property a few years ago and had several interested buyers. But because business loans are “nonexistent” these days, Leete said, people weren’t able to get the loans they needed to purchase it.

The contest makes owning a bed and breakfast possible for just about anybody. With an application fee of $150, you could enter in lieu of a birthday present, or instead of taking the family out to dinner, Leete said.

“We’re just excited because you know, there’s a lot of dreamers out there that it would be impossible, you could never get the business loan,” she said.

The Leetes are looking to make at least $499,000 - they paid $495,000 for the property a dozen years ago - from the entry fees, meaning they’ll need about 3,330 submissions. If they get enough entries, Leete said, they’ll also throw in $5,000 to help the new owner with start-up costs.

If there aren’t as many dreamers out there as the Leetes hope, they’ll refund everyone’s money.

The Leetes consulted with attorneys to make sure everything about the contest was legal. They wouldn’t be allowed to have a lottery, or just pick a winner at random. But because the contest is based on merit - who writes the most compelling essay - it got the all-clear, Leete said.

The Leetes got the idea from the Center Lovell Inn located in Maine, whose owner made more than $900,000 off of more than 7,000 entries she received. Her contest required a 200-word essay and a $125 entry fee.

The contest wasn’t without its drama; some innkeeper hopefuls complained that the contest was unfair, prompting a police investigation. But ultimately, authorities determined it had been conducted legally.

The Leetes anxiously followed along with the contest and, when they saw how it worked out, decided to go for it.

Though the Center Lovell Inn garnered enough applications to make its contest a winner, similar efforts in Western Virginia over the years haven’t been as successful.

In 1999, a Salem couple tried to hand off their 10-room Queen Anne Victorian home with an essay contest but fell more than 1,000 entries short of what they needed.

In 2000, Buena Vista restaurant Boxcar Cafe didn’t reach its goal of 1,500 essay applications, and instead the building went up for sale without a working business inside it.

In 2009, a Pulaski County couple offered up their 19-room home - which they originally planned to make a bed and breakfast - to the winner of a scavenger hunt. But the contest was canceled shortly after it began.

In 2011, the owners of Blue Ridge Bagels in Bedford attempted to find the business’ next owner through an essay contest. They failed to draw enough entries and instead sold the business in the traditional way.

Though they’re hopeful, Leete and her husband aren’t confident their contest will be the one to break that trend. But they’re going to try, she said.

Leete is hopeful that the ease of the submission process - entries can be made online via PayPal - will be a draw.

If it works out, great. But if it doesn’t, Leete said, they’ll keep chugging along.

They aren’t moving ahead with any other plans - they hope to build a home on land they own in Franklin County - until the contest closes.

The contest began July 1 and will run through Sept. 1. Leete said they have already received several submissions, some even from foreign countries, though she declined to give a number.

Leete and her husband will read through the submissions and narrow it down to the top 10 or 20. Those essays will then be read by a panel of three judges. Leete opted for secrecy when it came to their identities but said they are not all from Virginia.

The Leetes will not give tours or answer any questions for interested buyers. But there’s nothing to stop those people from staying at the B&B; and surreptitiously gathering information. That’s what Leete said she would do.

She also suspects that people are driving by to get a glimpse of what could be their future home. “We’ve had a lot of cars cruising through Rocky Mount,” she said.

Aside from wowing the Leetes and the judges with their writing prowess, the new owners pretty much just have to walk in and take over. The furnishings, the website and the online reservation system are all part of the package. The Leetes will help train the new owners.

The new owners must agree to operate the property as a bed and breakfast for at least a year. Leete said this is because they book 11 months out. But the family hopes the new owners will keep it as a B&B;, which it has been for 30 years.

The Leetes have run it for 12 years. Though they’re ready for the next chapter, Leete said she’ll miss sitting down and having a cup of coffee with her guests.

As an innkeeper, Leete has learned that everyone has a story. And she’s sure the innkeeper hopefuls do, too. “That’s what the essays are,” she said.

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Information from: The Roanoke Times, https://www.roanoke.com

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