PORTLAND, Maine — Maine State Police are investigating the legality of an essay contest launched in March to win the historic Center Lovell Inn.

Earlier this month, inn owner Janice Sage announced that the keys to her business would go to a New York couple, who run a restaurant in St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands. The quirky contest received worldwide attention and more than 7,000 people from around the globe entered to win.

But as details of the winning essay were revealed, some participants have come forward claiming the contest, which required entrants to submit a 200-word essay and $125, was rigged in the favor of hospitality pros, not wordsmiths with a dream. A Facebook group called Center Lovell Fair Practices Commission has surfaced as a clearinghouse for jilted participants. It had 100 members by Monday evening.

State police Sgt. Michael Johnston of the Special Investigations Unit confirmed Monday that nine complaints are being investigated.

“We need to make sure it’s a game of skill, not chance,” said Johnston, who is also looking into whether the competition was “conducted as the contest stated.”

Running an unlicensed game of chance is a Class D misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of $2,000 and 364 days in jail. Sage did not have a license to do so, Johnston said.

“That is the only aspect we are investigating. We expect to have it wrapped up within a week or so,” he said.

Rose and Prince Adams of the restaurant Sweet Plantains in the Virgin Islands told the BDN last week that the inn, with a full-scale restaurant and views of the White Mountains, will reopen by mid-July. They did not return a call seeking comment about the investigation.

Cortney Potts, a chef from Nebraska who entered the contest, said, “What bothered me was the inconsistent information.” She claims the Facebook page associated with the contest did not jibe with the online rules. “The flow of information was not handled well.

“It’s disappointing that the winners already have a restaurant. That upset a lot of people,” said Potts, who filed a complaint with the attorney general’s office stating that the contest was unfair. “They are hiding something, and we need to figure out what it is.”

Calls to Sage on Monday were not immediately returned.

It’s not yet clear how this will affect similar contests that have surfaced in Maine since the Center Lovell Inn’s contest went viral. Last week, Sarah Pebworth of the Blue Hill Inn launched a similar contest based on Sage’s success. She is asking people to answer the question “Why would I love to own and operate the Blue Hill Inn?”

Kathleen Pierce

A lifelong journalist with a deep curiosity for what's next. Interested in food, culture, trends and the thrill of a good scoop. BDN features reporter based in Portland since 2013.