ARTHUR LEACH wants $99 from you.
In return he'll give you, yes, give you, a spotless, renovated, three-bedroom house with a fireplace on a beautiful tree-lined tidal harbor here not too far from George and Barbara Bush's modest little summer house.
There is a small catch, though. You have to write a 250-word or less essay for Mr. Leach on, "Why I Would Like to Live by the Water in Kennebunkport, Maine, USA."
After renovating an old house and adding amenities such as a sleeping loft and a deck, Leach couldn't sell it. So he checked with the state's attorney general to see if he could raffle the house. "I couldn't do that," said the jovial, entrepreneurial Leach, "but I could have an essay contest."
So Leach and his wife, Shirley, established some rules and spread the word: For an entry fee of $99 and a 250-word essay, to be judged on the basis of "style, content, originality, and wit," the contest would be open to the first 3,500 entrants - first come, first housed.
Quicker than you can say,"no new taxes," Leach would earn $346,500, and the best essayist would get a lovely house in Maine for $99 (taxed at $2,500 a year). Plenty of room
The house is situated on an acre of land, has 2-1/2 baths, and is on town sewer and water lines. Above the two-car garage is lots of room for a studio, workshop, or storage.
"We sent out a bulk mailing of about 10,000 letters to college and high school English departments," in Northeast states, Leach says.
Word spread through the press, too. "Shirley and I were flown to Toronto to be on national television there, and we were on the evening news in Boston," Leach says. "The phones rang off the hooks."
Since April, the result has been about 1,700 entries from the 50 states, Canada, Mexico, Singapore, Japan, Denmark, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, England, Scotland, and Ireland. "Last week we got an entry from Turkey," Leach says, "but it must have been in his pocket a long time, and coffee had been spilled on it, so we sent a new one out to him."
For reasons unknown to anybody but the three judges (Leach will not be a judge), a surprising number of the essays have been sad. In these hard economic times, woe may be more persuasive than wit.
"One essay was only two words long," says Leach, who has twice had to extend the deadline for the contest in order to attract the 3,500 entries.
The absolute, final deadline is Oct. 1, l992. Hard work, but fun
"This has been a learning experience," Leach says with a touch of weariness. "It's been a lot of work and fun, but we've met a lot of great people."
During the summer, lots of people have visited the empty house, which is easily identifiable by the three 4-foot-wide helium-filled balloons hovering over the house.
What will Leach do if he doesn't get 3,500 entries by October 1?
"I'm optimistic we are going to make it, but if we don't, we'll be obliged to return the money to people," he says.
"They seem to be waiting until the last minute. We've received a lot of heartwarming letters, and a lot of people have told us that they have rewritten their essays again and again."
The rules indicate that Leach owns the copyright to the essays. "We think we might publish a book of them with a title like `101 Reasons Why I'd Like to Live in Kennebunkport,' " he says with a salesman's enthusiasm.
If Leach does receive enough essays, he will announce the winner from the deck of the house at a gala press conference somewhere around Oct. 10.
"We'll do it inside if it rains, " he says. "The winner will get a clear deed to the house. There are no liens on it, no mortgage."