Nonprofit organizations, taking a cue from retailers, are hoping to make the nation's Halloween fever another venue for raising money.
When the Farmington Fire Explorers tossed around fundraising ideas this year, suggestions got creepy.
The teen group decided to create a haunted house to tap into Halloween fever.
"There's just one problem," said Christopher Matek, a captain at the Farmington Fire Department who is overseeing the project. "There's two other haunted houses in Farmington [that benefit charities]."
With the average American expected to shell out $72 on thrills and chills this year, Halloween, now the second-biggest retail holiday of the year, is becoming a cash cow for charities and nonprofits, too.
Seven in 10 Americans, or 161 million people, plan to celebrate Halloween this year, according to a National Retail Federation survey. That's the biggest number since the survey started nine years ago.
Halloween buffs are expected to drop nearly $7 billion, the survey said.
From the Hamel Lions' Club Haunted Acres to "Deadview Cemetery" in Cottage Grove, metro-area nonprofits are positioned to collect. Cute community trick-or-treat parties are being joined by high-tech, hair-raising ghoul fests.
"Spookiness and costumes appeal to a wide range of people," said Jackie Sticha, president of Como Friends, which rakes in as much as $100,000 a year during its Zoo Boo trick-or-treat at Como Zoo. "Halloween can provide something no matter what age you are."
From dogs to balls
Check out the range of charitable choices this Halloween.
St. Paul City Ballet had its annual Masquerade Ball at the University Club in St. Paul, an elegant event with a French motif.
An animal rescue and adoption benefit dubbed Howl-O-Ween took over Lucky Dog Pet Lodge in Bloomington on Sunday, featuring pooches in costume bobbing for hot dogs.
Deadview Cemetery, run by a Cottage Grove nonprofit that donates proceeds to the area Friends in Need food shelf, operates a torch-lit maze haunted by zombies and ghouls.
Wildly diverse, the fundraisers share themes. The events build community goodwill. They raise money for a cause. And they're a ton of fun -- and work.
"Halloween has become a larger and larger event every year," said Tim Farrell, president of the Hamel Lions Club Haunted Acres.
"Twenty years ago, there weren't nearly as many adults participating."
The Hamel Lions experience points to the evolution of Halloween fundraisers. A dozen years ago, they decorated a small business with witches, pumpkins and cobwebs and handed out candy to kids.
Today, they work with the Corcoran Lions Club and the Northwest Area Jaycees to run a roughly 8-acre event that features a haunted house, cemetery, ghoul house, bonfire, hot chocolate, chili and more.
Farrell said the event has raised an average of $5,000 a year for the Interfaith Outreach Food Shelf in Wayzata. With a bigger location this year in Corcoran, it could raise more. Proceeds are also shared among the three organizations running it.
Mark Davy, a veteran nonprofit fundraiser in Minnesota, says tapping Halloween fever makes sense. The power of children cannot be underestimated when it comes to driving new charity trends, he said.
"They get Mom and Dad to take them to the Halloween events," he said, "and then they go back every year."
Haunts are big draw
While some churches and schools sell pumpkins and ghost-shaped candies, the big bucks in Halloween come from chills and thrills. Nearly one in four Americans planned to visit a haunted house this season, the retail survey said.
The most visited haunted house in the Twin Cities is the Ramsey County Sheriff's Department "Fright Farm" in Maplewood. As many as 1,000 people stream through the farm each night, requiring traffic controllers. Proceeds fund the DARE program, or Drug Abuse Resistance Education.
"Where else do you have people pay money to have law enforcement scare them?" asked Randy Gustafson, Sheriff's Department spokesman. "We want to show them, especially young people, that law enforcement is human, too."
The farm typically nets about $50,000 a year for DARE, said Brad Camitsch, event coordinator. But add a windstorm or an arctic blast, and the figure can slide. That's a big downside of outdoor fundraisers.
Deadview Cemetery, for example, suffered two years of deathly finances. In 2009, snow prevented its opening. In 2010, a windstorm ripped through the tombstones and trails, forcing the nonprofit to buy thousands of dollars in supplies, said Tom Parenteau, who oversees the production.
"We still charge $6, the cheapest in the metro," he said. "We couldn't justify raising our prices with the recession and layoffs. We want families to come without busting the bank."
Meanwhile, the Farmington Fire Explorers hope this year's haunted house will begin a tradition. The explorers, a teen group of fire and rescue trainees, were even able to scare up donations from some businesses, said Matek.
"Absolutely we hope this continues," said Matek, noting that the proceeds will be shared between the explorers and the Farmington Food Shelf. "But we're competing with two others' haunted houses. This is definitely on the upswing."
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511