One inn, yours for a song - and an essay

A Colorado couple hopes to trade the place for a tidy sum in contest-entry fees, and fulfill an aspiring innkeeper's dream

One entry came on a handmade quilt. Another was written on bark. A third was ironed onto a handkerchief and rolled into a Victorian-era shoe.

All of them tell, in 150 words or less, why their writers should be the next owners of the Ice Palace Inn, a cozy Victorian bed & breakfast perched on top of the world in what's considered the highest town in the US.

"Some made us laugh, and some are really sad," says Kami Kolakowski of the thousands of entries she has received since she and her husband, Giles, began an essay contest for ownership of their inn more than six months ago.

Being so moved by the entries, she adds, "is the best part of this, and the part we didn't expect."

Inspired by the 1996 movie "The Spitfire Grill," the Kolakowskis decided a year ago to hold the contest. Kami's parents had just left Leadville for Seattle, and Kami and Giles wanted to raise their three young kids close to family. A cafe in Winter Park, Colo., had been sold through an essay contest, they discovered. And an inn in Maine was still being run by the couple who won it 10 years ago.

The idea appealed to Kami's sense of whimsy. She talks about "making dreams come true" and imagines passing the keys to the winners after they're chosen in May.

While she and Giles hoped the process would be quicker, and more profitable, than the more mundane sales route, it has also turned out to be much more work.

Working backward from the minimum $575,000 they wanted to get for the five-bedroom inn, they set the entrance fee at $230 - "the price of a weekend," Kami says brightly - and the number of entries needed at 2,500.

It didn't seem like too much to expect at the time, but now Kami is keeping her fingers crossed - and the press releases flying - hoping that the last 500 entries will come in over the next two weeks. When people call her for advice on running an essay contest, she has one question for them: "Are you related to Oprah?" If not, she says, "I tell them to call a Realtor."

Kami herself tried desperately to get on Oprah - "that's what it would take," she says emphatically - without success. In the end she methodically looked up e-mail addresses for newspapers, magazines, and TV stations in every state and sent off gushing "Win the Inn!" notes with links to the inn's website, Eventually, she purchased a media directory from Gebbie Press for $240.

It's easy to be cynical about the Kolakowskis' motives - after all, the local tax assessor values the inn at $213,000, while the Kolakowskis maintain it's worth $725,000.

But they offer a heartfelt sales job. Kami proudly shows the upgrades she's given each room - tissue-box covers, VCRs, wooden hangers - to get a three- diamond rating from AAA, and talks enthusiastically about the inn's history and her love of all things Victorian. (Her parents restored Victorian homes when she was growing up.)

Kami says the inn takes in about $100,000 a year, and costs $30,000 in expenses, including the mortgage. (The winner will get it with the mortgage paid off.)

If she was surprised at how hard it was to get 2,500 people interested in winning a small bed & breakfast in a relatively remote mountain town, Kami was also surprised at how moved - and impressed - she's been by some of the entries. There's the couple from Nebraska who sent their essay in the form of a recipe - housed in a model of the inn made from sugar cubes. A US soldier stationed in Germany sent a poem he called "This soldier's prayer." "Please watch over my little girl, as I go off to fight the world," reads one line.

Less impressive to the Kolakowskis were the woman who wanted to make the inn a "dog heaven," and the couple who said the first thing they'd do was change the Ice Palace's name.

Frank Schuler, an antique-shop owner and occasional actor in rural Murphy, N.C., came across the contest on eBay, where the inn contest was listed among the real estate ads, and found he couldn't get the Ice Palace out of his mind. "I'm one who's a believer in shooting for a dream," says Mr. Schuler. "Before I knew it, I was up at 3 a.m., jotting down notes."

A history buff, he did some research before entering, and spent as much time on the presentation of his entry - written on good parchment and surrounded by images of the original Ice Palace - as he did on the 150-word poem.

The chances of winning may be small, but Schuler figures it's a better shot than the lottery or a Las Vegas card game. He hopes to at least make the top 100, which the Kolakowskis will pick before handing them over to a panel of impartial judges, some of whom were chosen for their connections to Leadville history.

For Gerry Timm, it's the location of the inn that has her counting down the days until the winner is announced May 31.

Her granddaughter, Maya, lives in Leadville, a long way from the Timms in Hayward, Wis. "I've been screaming inside for two months. I've told all my friends," says Mrs. Timm, who's entered the contest twice, once with a poem in the style of Dr. Seuss. "I'm just glad I didn't find out about it in August."

It's somehow fitting that such a quirky sales process is playing out in Leadville, an old mining town with an unusually colorful history of gamblers and prospectors, of poor men who made millions, and millionaires who died paupers. The "Unsinkable Molly Brown" - the woman reputed to have saved herself and several other passengers by rowing a lifeboat for seven and a half hours after the Titantic disaster - was a Leadville native. Doc Holliday had his final shootout here.

The Kolakowskis' inn takes its name from the giant five-acre palace that was built largely from ice blocks in the winter of 1895. It had a grand ballroom, a carousel, and a skating rink, and lasted just three months before it melted. Some of the lumber from the palace was used to build the inn.

Today, Leadville's history, as well as its 10,200 foot elevation, still draws visitors. The town hosts a 100-mile mountain-bike race, a 100-mile running race, and a burro race. One day last month snowmen sat outside most homes - including the Ice Palace Inn - for a local contest. "It's got a lot of kooky, funny stuff," Kami says with a smile, acknowledging that she'll miss it.

As the contest enters its final few weeks, Kami holds out hope that an item in the AAA magazine will help. Even if she doesn't get quite 2,500, she says, she'll probably still choose a winner rather than refund the money and call a Realtor.

"I'd love to see it be given away," she says. "We think it'll be a dream come true for [the winner]."

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