Throngs to swamp Cape Breton town as fundraiser expected to hit $1 million

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Mike Fraser is used to how busy things can become during the tourist season in Inverness, N.S., but the bartender says he’s never experienced anything like the thousands of people who are drawn by a fundraising game to his scenic town every weekend.

When asked to describe the Chase the Ace draw that is expected to swell the town’s population from about 1,500 to about 10,000 on Saturday, Fraser can only joke in amazement.

“Rolling Stones concert,” he laughed. “That’s about it.”

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Organizer Cameron MacQuarrie is also amazed at how a game that began last October with a jackpot of just $35 has gradually transformed into a can’t miss social event with a jackpot that could hit $1 million.

“The patrons really sort of caught on to the idea of the draw being an event as well as a way to possibly win some cash,” said MacQuarrie, who is vice-president of the local Royal Canadian Legion. “It really makes the whole atmosphere sort of a party or a Ceilidh-type of sit down affair where everyone gets to know each other, plays cards and listens to music.”

He said as many as 8,000 people are expected for Saturday’s ticket draw, which raises money for the legion and a centre for adults with intellectual disabilities.

The holder of the winning ticket gets a 20 per cent cut of the ticket sales and a chance to draw the ace of spades to win the jackpot. There are seven cards left in the deck.

MacQuarrie said it’s the second year for the draw, which had far more modest goals at the start.

“Our expectations were that it would be a fundraiser that might be able raise maybe $20,000 or $30,000,” he said. “But this year it’s a whole different beast, so to speak.”

So many people now come for the draw that they have to be accommodated at the local harness racing track. This weekend the town’s high school gymnasium will also be used and the RCMP issued a traffic advisory on Friday that encourages people to car pool.

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The instant tourism has been a major boost to businesses in town.

“Our summer months are pretty busy for us, but our season usually ends by this time,” said Jasmyn Webb, who works at the Coal Miners Cafe.

Webb said she and other staff are now “run off our feet” on most Saturdays as people line up to eat from the time the cafe opens at 6:30 a.m. until it closes at 8:00 p.m.

Last weekend, demand was so great the cafe began to run out of drinks and some food items, she said.

Fraser, who has been the legion’s bartender for 20 years, said people are coming from as far away as New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island for a chance at the winning ticket.

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Six boats made the trip from P.E.I. for last weekend’s draw, he added, and others have shown up as early as Friday to sleep overnight in their vehicles.

A temporary cellphone tower was brought in this week because of the jump in use, Fraser said.

“As soon as they start drawing everybody starts their cellphone up, they want to text people,” he said. “I know people that sent a text at two o’clock and the people never got it until five or six.”

It’s all just a bit amusing to Fraser, who said the town is coping, despite the influx of people.

“They love coming,” he said. “Like people say, they didn’t win but they had a great time.”

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Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press

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