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Betting on the Bonanza
by Arlene Karidis
This massive fundraiser yields big winners but is motivated by a sense of community.
If you happen by Hagerstown Speedway the weekend of May 9, and look down from the hill, you might think there’s a huge NASCAR event going down. But it’s the Bonanza Extravaganza. Hundreds of campers and motor homes will have rolled in from every state, and there’s likely going to be one guy from as far as Denmark. He comes every year and brings his friends.
What’s the big draw?
“They come to gamble and for the thrill of the win,” says Rick Conrad, committee chair of the event, which is hosted by Local 1605, Hagerstown Professional Fire Fighters Association. “The $100 ticket is the hottest sell. The prize list is huge, and you can win more than once,” says Rick.
With 10,000 tickets up for grabs, this year’s pot includes seven Chevy cars and trucks, seven Harley Davidson motorcycles, four-wheelers, camping trailers and cash prizes from $1,000, up to the $100,000 grand prize. “Winners are announced every five minutes. Then we drop the ball back in the machine, and you get another chance. We had a guy win a Harley motorcycle, and not even half an hour later he won $5,000 in cash,” Ricks says.
Once the first three numbers of the four-digit combination are called, everyone holding those numbers is brought on stage in a huge tent jammed with 5,000 people. “When we draw the fourth number it’s kind of like the Price is Right on steroids,” he says.
Rick Palmer sells tickets from his Potomac Street business, Eddie’s Upholstery.
“I’ve sold the winning tickets for about five vehicles and also for cash. A lot of people come in just to buy a ticket. Then they’ll ask me about detailing their car, so it works out for everybody,” he says. Rick’s also gotten lucky himself a few times. His biggest win was the Harley he rides now. “Hearing I’d just won a nearly $25,000 motorcycle on a $100 ticket was unbelievable … like hitting the lottery,” he says.
Folks gamble some more in a gaming area with tip jars, wheel games and more lures, while they watch the winning four-digit draws flash across big flat screens, but it’s not just for those with the gambling bug. There’s an all-you-can-eat buffet, bottomless beers, and vendors selling leather, jewelry, tattoos and other merchandise. Live bands entertain with gigs ranging from blue grass to classic rock. This year’s headliner is a Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute band that plays Friday night, for the warm up to Saturday’s big-ticket giveaways. “We call it Big Friday Night Money because we put up $20,000 from our profits and give it away to build the crowd and momentum,” says Rick Conrad.
On The Origins
The Bonanza Extravaganza, now nine-years-running, launched with the muscle and brains of career firefighters from the Hagerstown Fire Company, and it grew from there. “We wanted an event to benefit all the Washington County Fire and Rescue departments,” says Rick. While IAFF Local 1605 manages the fundraiser, fire departments countywide help with logistics and work the booths for their cut.
Sharpsburg Fire Company has participated in the event for four years now. “We get limited money from the county and state and need to make up roughly $60,000 each year for operations,” says Chris Mullendore, chief of the Sharpsburg Fire Company. He says this year’s funds will be put aside to help with the design and construction of a new station. “Fundraising ideas for a small company are limited, so being able to help someone else with their event and make a few thousand is beneficial because it does not require upfront work from us. We just send four people for two days to staff a game.”
It’s many of the local fire companies who helped get the whole concept off the ground.
“We knew we couldn’t do it alone, and we didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. So we brought in people who have done this. But the Bonanza Extravaganza is on a larger scale,” says Rick.
The massive fundraiser held each Mother’s Day weekend now benefits 50 local nonprofits each year, and has generated over $1.2 million. A few of this year’s beneficiaries are South Hagerstown High School’s football team, Clear Spring High’s band, and the Coats for Kids program. South Hagerstown High’s “Rebels” have even worked the Extravaganza for the past several years. “We help clean up, park cars and do whatever we’re needed for,” says the team’s coach, Toby Peer. “It teaches kids to volunteer. It’s about good teambuilding, and we are supporting our community while receiving monies for the team’s equipment.”
Although sponsors are mainly local and regional, the event has garnered the attention of corporate America in the form of backings from Chevrolet and Harley Davidson. With over $825,000 in raffle prizes, it’s a great excuse to get your game on, eat, drink, and enjoy it all while managing to give back to the community.