That's the ticket!

Marie Havenga • Jul 21, 2015 at 12:22 PM

In 1991, when two winners claimed $10 million jackpots less than a month apart from tickets bought at the Wesco stores in Spring Lake and Fruitport, life likely cruised like a luxury liner. For the countless other players, it's more like hoping a life ring gets tossed their way.

No matter the state of the economy, people are spending big on a chance for those life rings. According to the Michigan Lottery's annual report, ticket sales last year totaled more than $2.4 billion, up from $2.3 billion in 2011.

About a third of the revenue goes into the state school aid fund and is divided among the state's school districts.

Keith Konarska, superintendent of Grand Haven Area Public Schools, said it is impossible to know how much of the funding comes directly from ticket sales.

“Lottery funds go into the pot in Lansing,” he explained. “It's part of what they give us in foundation allowance. We never know how much of those lottery dollars come to our schools. We just know it goes into the pot to create the funding.”

The Michigan Lottery paid out a total of $1.4 billion in prize money last year and $172 million in retailer commissions.

When you buy a ticket at a local bar or gas station, 6 percent of the ticket price goes directly to the selling venue. If you win, the retailers fetch their own windfall – from 2 cents up to a maximum $50,000 for being the purveyor of a pot o' gold. While it's not exactly cash for life, it is a lifeline for many of the 2,287 lottery retailers in Ottawa County.

Joe Stalec, owner of Stan's Bar in Spring Lake, would not disclose how much he makes from ticket sales each year, but he said every little bit helps.

“It pays a few bills,” he said. “It's not as good as food and beer, but it helps pay bills and it keeps people here. It keeps them interested.”

On a recent weekday at Stan's, several patrons sipped beer as they glanced up at a monitor to check the numbers, with lottery tickets next to their napkins. It's a frequent scene, according to Stalec, who estimates about 25 percent of his patrons come in to play Club Keno.

“There's always that dream of winning big,” he said.

For one local patron, that dream came true on Feb. 11, 2012, when he landed a winning Powerball ticket. That ticket was worth $40,000, the largest local jackpot since 2007.

“He saw the numbers in the morning and he was just shaking,” Stalec recalled. “He knew he had a big winner, but he wasn't sure what he had. He came in first thing, banging on the door, because he wanted to check out his ticket.”

The winner declined an interview request from the Tribune. Several other “big winners” also chose to remain anonymous.

To read more of this story, see Saturday’s print or e-edition of the Grand Haven Tribune.

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