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Idaho Lottery is hitting the jackpot with Utahns

Published: Friday, Feb. 6 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

Geoff Green is the manager of Malad's Kwik Stop, which is Idaho's top seller of lottery tickets. He says 95 percent of the tickets at the border store are sold to Utahns.

Lee Davidson, Deseret News

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Geoff Green says a simple reason explains why his tiny Kwik Stop gas station has ruled as Idaho's No. 1 seller of lottery tickets for more than a decade: location. It is in Malad, near the border with Utah — where no gambling is legal.

"I would estimate that 95 percent of the tickets we sell are to Utahns," said Green, manager of the Kwik Stop.

Idaho's No. 2 seller is across the street at the Top Stop Chevron. In fact, five of Idaho's top eight lottery retailers are on the Utah border, according to 2008 Idaho Lottery Commission sales data obtained by the Deseret News.

Deseret News analysis estimates that Utahns likely purchased at least $9 million of Idaho lottery tickets last year, about 7 percent of all sales.

With Utah's help, tiny Malad (population 2,065) even sells more lottery tickets than any of Idaho's cities except large Boise and Idaho Falls.

"I've worked here 16 years. There are people from Utah who have been customers as long as I've worked here. I see some regulars every five weeks," Green said. He explains that one ticket can cover lottery drawings for up to five weeks.

When the Powerball lottery payout is large, Green said, the line for lottery tickets can wind out his door and into the parking lot — creating an hour's wait for tickets.

Not just the retailers closest to the border benefit from Utahns. Some many miles away also say the bulk of their sales are to Utahns, too.

"I'd say about 75 percent of our sales are to Utahns," said Lisa Toly, owner of the Sunnyside Sinclair gas station in Lava Hot Springs, about 58 miles from the border.

Toly said that while most locals may spend a dollar or two on tickets, many Utahns "spend $50 to $100 on tickets. They say they are buying for people they work with, who heard they were going to Idaho and asked them to buy some tickets."

Toly said when jackpots are big, the lottery commission calls retailers in Lava Hot Springs and other cities nearby to ensure they have enough paper for the extra tickets they expect to sell to Utahns.

The new 2008 data suggest that Utahns may have purchased about $9 million worth of Idaho Lottery tickets — using Green's estimate that 95 percent of border-city sales go to Utahns and Toly's estimate that 75 percent of sales from cities a bit further away (but still close) also go to Utahns.

That would include Utahns buying an estimated $5.8 million in Malad alone. To put that in perspective, that is more than all lottery sales in Nampa (Idaho's second largest city), which amounted to $4.6 million.

David Workman, spokesman for the Idaho Lottery Commission, said the commission has not attempted to figure out how many Utahns buy lottery tickets.

"The basic thing I could tell you is that counties along the border there, Oneida (home to Malad) and Franklin, have 1.1 percent of the state's population. But they have 9.5 percent of all sales," he said.

Although the Idaho lottery does not advertise in Utah, Green said the number of Utahns playing the Idaho Lottery seems to be growing.

For example, he said his Kwik Stop has managed to remain No. 1 in lottery sales despite the construction of the Top Stop Chevron across the street about 10 years ago. The rival business has become No. 2 in the state for lottery sales.

"We used to battle it out with La Tienda in Franklin for No. 1 and No. 2. When they built the place across the street, I thought we would lose No. 1. But we haven't. Business keeps expanding," he said. "We always have a lot of people come in who have never played the lottery before, and ask how to do it."

For the record, overall lottery product sales in some towns near the Utah border include: Malad, $6.1 million; Franklin, near Utah's Cache Valley, $1.5 million; and Fish Haven on Bear Lake, $708,802. Sales in other nearby towns include: Downey, $472,000; Preston, $375,000; Lava Hot Springs, $338,000; and McCammon, $319,000.

That leads to some interesting statistics about lottery sales per person. Fish Haven, for example, sold $5,100 worth of lottery tickets per resident (thanks to sales to Utahns). Malad sold $2,900 per resident. Franklin sold $2,200 per resident.

In comparison, the average sales-per-person statewide in Idaho was last year was $104.

Many of the state's top individual retailers are in border cities. No. 1 in the state was Kwik Stop in Malad with $2.44 million in sales. No. 2 was Malad's Top Stop Chevron at $2.31 million. No. 3 was La Tienda in Franklin at $1.45 million. No. 7 was Gladys' Place in Fish Haven, $550,614. And No. 8 was K-C Oil in Malad, $450,899.

E-mail: lee@desnews.com

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