Donalsonville got to be ‘boom town for a day’

Published 8:01 am Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Mega Million Lottery fever spread around the country, leading every newscast and radio report during the past week as the jackpot grew each day approaching its Friday drawing. The frenzy drew people of all walks of life to buy a chance at unimaginable fortune, and in doing so they made Donalsonville a boom town for a day.

This particular lottery is played in 42 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It was our own bit of fate that two of the states that don’t participate are our neighbors, Florida and Alabama. For a large part of southeast Alabama and northwest Florida, the nearest town in Georgia is Donalsonville.

It was a forecast of things to come when the Panama City television stations announced on their newscasts that Donalsonville was the closest town selling lottery tickets.

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I happened to be coming back from Compass Lake, Fla., on Friday and was struck by the large amount of traffic headed our way. Spring Break was the obvious answer, but it was only partially true.

By the time I had retrieved my camera from home around dusk, it was like a scene from the movie, Field of Dreams. The car lights illuminated a long line of automobiles headed into town. Many of them stopped at the “Big Chief” station, the first stop in town.

The crush of cars completely filled their parking lot, and the lot of the adjacent restaurant. People parked up and down State Roads 39 and 91 and spilled over into the Elementary School parking lot. The line was obviously out the door.

The overflow then spread over town as more and more cars from Florida and Alabama entered the city. Pizza Hut was overrun by its neighboring station to the south. The Hardee’s truck parking lot had dozens of cars parked headed to the station on the corner.

I rode around town marveling at the crowd of people at every single place that was selling lottery tickets. These people didn’t just live across the state line; many had driven for hours just for the opportunity to buy a chance at wealth.

How much wealth? Well that partially explains the circus-like atmosphere. It was $656 million at last count. The one-time after tax payout would be around $330 million.

Even though it turned out there were three winning tickets, it still means that each will receive around $110 million after tax. It would be hard to get along on that, but I would love to try.

Across the nation, people spent endless hours dreaming about how they would spend their fortunes. Pay off debt. Buy a new car. Send their children to college. Build a hospital. Buy an island.

Those sorts of dreams caused some people to wait in line over five hours in California. I won’t wait an hour for the best steak in town!

Of course, your chances of winning were more than 1 in 176 million. I mentioned to our office as they were leaving on Friday that they were more likely to be struck by lightning on their way to purchase a ticket than to actually win. Running to their cars in the rain, a huge lightning bolt struck close enough to our office to raise the hair on the back of your neck. God does have a sense of humor.

All told, Americans spent over $1.5 billion dollars on the lottery. Exactly $651,915,940 was spent on Friday alone. How they can figure that up to the exact dollar this quickly is pretty amazing in and of itself.

Our school systems were big winners, as were those students who are dependent on the HOPE Scholarship. Millions of extra dollars were pumped into our state lottery by virtue of this one game.

There were more than 100 million losers, including almost everyone that purchased a ticket in southwest Georgia.

However, there were some local winners. Rumor has it that one lucky Florida citizen did win a $10,000 prize here in town, which made his drive worthwhile. Another local citizen purchased a $10,000 ticket in Colquitt.

Several local gas stations and restaurants reported the largest sales day in their history. Many of those buying tickets also bought gas and food for their long return home.

Small rural towns work hard to build prosperity during these tough times. For Donalsonville, Mega Millions gave it the chance to be a Boom Town for a day.

Dan Ponder can be reached at