Wrangell’s Chamber of Commerce received an anonymous tip a few weeks ago that expressed concern that the Chamber was running a cash raffle in violation of state gaming statutes. Turns out, the tipster was right. But there’s a plan to remedy the raffle that the Chamber is relying on to help fund the community’s largest event.
Wrangell’s Chamber of Commerce has been working to battle its way back from dire financial straits for almost a year, after officials say its usual funding mechanisms have all but failed.
“The thought was 800 tickets at $50 a ticket, that’s $40,000,” explains Brittani Robbins, the Chamber’s outgoing executive director. “$10,000 goes to someone, and now we have $30,000 to at least, you know, have a Fourth of July. However, they’re not selling well.”
Robbins says the Chamber’s financial problems predate her leadership, which began in 2021. The Chamber sells pull-tabs to bars in town as a backup source of funding, but the lion’s share of its money comes from chamber memberships and fundraising in the run-up to the Fourth of July. Pull-tabs sales and holiday fundraising fell flat last year, leaving the Chamber with a third of its usual reserves.
So the Chamber made changes – pulling many of its paid memberships in organizations around town, implementing fees for Fourth of July booths and services, and cutting back on working hours.
They also started a cash raffle in August.
Originally, the raffle didn’t have an end date. The Chamber planned to draw tickets after they all sold and said the 400th ticket draw would win $10,000. But that’s not legal.
“We received an anonymous letter in the mail that just said, ‘Hey, I’m concerned, you know, this is what I know about gaming,’” Robbins explains. The Chamber checked in with their pull-tabs vendor and the state gaming office and realized the tipster was right.
“The biggest thing was not having a draw date, it’s important to have a draw date,” Robbins explains, “So everyone kind of knows, so there’s not the constant wondering and asking and saying, ‘Hey, I’ve given you this much money, when am I going to know if I won or not.’”
State gaming law is pretty clear and strict about what information needs to be provided with a ticket when it’s purchased. That includes the draw date and location, as well as any other prizes. Robbins says she takes responsibility for the error.
“I do have the [regulation] book. It’s just – it’s a lot of things to remember,” Robbins says. She’s what’s called the Member In Charge, legally responsible for making sure the Chamber’s charitable gaming follows the law. “And would I say that I probably should have gone through and check through that? Absolutely. But I didn’t. And I can’t go back on that now. We’ve been told: ‘This is how it needs to be.’ And so we’re going to do that.”
It’s not clear whether the oversight will bring penalties for the Chamber. In the nine months since the Chamber started the raffle, they’ve sold around a third of their tickets. At a Chamber board meeting on May 1, the chamber’s treasurer reported 258 tickets sold. That number shifted slightly in interviews with KSTK and the Wrangell Sentinel.
Luana Wellons has been the chamber’s executive assistant for around the same amount of time Robbins has been director. Wellons is now the executive director in training and will take over that role in the coming months – she and Robbins say that isn’t related to the raffle oversight, but is a cost-saving measure as the Chamber struggles more broadly with finances.
As she works toward that transition, Wellons is also working to rectify the raffle’s issues. To make it all legal, that needs to include setting an end date for the raffle. The chamber is aiming for August 15. Chamber board members said they think extending the raffle past the Fourth will help it not compete with holiday-focused fundraising. Plus, at the end of summer, fisheries are wrapping up and people in town will have more money.
The Chamber will have to reprint unsold ticket numbers with the proper information. It’ll make the running time of the raffle around a year.
“Because [the ticket] says ‘Need not be present to win,’ we are not legally required to notify everybody what happened with it,” explains director-in-training Luana Wellons, “But we’re planning on doing that – me and several board members are going to do that. We just have to email or call whatever it is, it doesn’t have to be in writing to notify them of what’s going on.”
The Chamber will also need to have any additional prizes in hand, and specify what they are and what ticket will win the prizes: “Several businesses have pledged prizes,” Wellons explains, “But we still haven’t picked them up. We also need to have those in our physical possession before we start selling tickets again.”
Outgoing director Robbins and incoming director Wellons say they’ve been in contact with the state gaming office about the raffle and what needs to be fixed.
“We just want to move forward in the correct way and do everything legal and keep everything on the up-and-up,” Wellons says, “Because we don’t want to upset anybody and we want to do things the right way.”
In an email, a Department of Revenue spokesperson, Special Assistant to the Commissioner Aimee Bushnell, said it’s out of the ordinary for a charitable gaming organization to be in violation of gaming requirements for raffles. She added that it can lead to permits and licenses getting suspended or revoked. But the Department didn’t say whether that could be the case for the Wrangell Chamber, which ran the raffle for nine months outside of state gaming law.
Regardless, the Chamber is making changes. There isn’t a date for when the issues will be resolved and the raffle will resume. But Robbins encourages people to buy tickets once they’re available again.
“Let’s keep the chamber alive,” Robbins says, “Let’s keep Wrangell alive and buy tickets, if you can. [And] win $10,000, who doesn’t want a $10,000 cash prize? You do have to pay taxes on that, though. So it’ll be more like $9,000-something.”
Wellons says that although the money from this raffle is for the Fourth of July, she doesn’t know if additional funds from the raffle after the $10,000 prize is paid out will go towards this year or next year’s celebrations: “The Fourth of July this year, except for the fireworks, has been 100% sponsored by local people,” Wellons explains. “It’ll be used for Fourth of July. I just don’t know if it’ll be this year or next year.”
For those who have already bought tickets in the Chamber’s cash raffle, those tickets will be honored and the numbers won’t be reprinted.
Get in touch with KSTK at email@example.com or (907) 874-2345.