ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Sharing a $408 million windfall was an unexpected luxury for Robert Singyke.
For Rita Jorgensen, the money paid out by Anchorage-based Cook Inlet Region Inc. was a crucial lifeline.
"It's made a phenomenal difference in my life," said Jorgensen, a factory worker who lives in Denver.
Both Singyke, a retired federal health care worker who lives in Anchorage, and Jorgensen are among some 7,000 tribal CIRI shareholders who received the special distributions. A typical shareholder with a hundred shares got $50,000 tax-free from the Alaska Native regional corporation in December and another $15,000 in May.
"This has given me the opportunity to enjoy some things I wouldn't otherwise be able to afford," said Singyke, 65, who received an additional 50 shares after the death of a son in 1993. With his $97,000, Singyke paid off his wife's new sport utility vehicle, expanded their mutual funds portfolio and bought a 17-foot motor boat for excursions on the Kenai River. He also is seriously thinking of buying a cabin property along the Kenai. Its all extravagance, he freely admits.
"I sometimes wonder, though, what it means to others," he said, "like a single mother who doesn't have what I have."
Jorgensen, 35, is one of those single mothers. With the first CIRI check, she put a down payment on a $225,000 home. The second, smaller, check will pay for air conditioning for the three-bedroom house.
"I went from living in the projects to owning one of the better homes in Denver," Jorgensen said. "It's not only an environmental change, it's an emotional change, a mental change, a financial change. It's where I always wanted to be."
The unprecedented bounty has meant a flurry of economic activity for shareholders, who have invested their newfound wealth on stocks, retirement plans, cars, homes and getting off public assistance. The money has gone toward long-awaited surgeries and dental work, launched new businesses and paid off student loans, credit cards and other debts.
CIRI officials and state economists say they've never heard of anything near the magnitude of the one-time dividend from the sale of 4.1 million shares of VoiceStream Wireless Corp.
From a payroll standpoint the distribution equals about 11,750 jobs paying $34,700 -- the state average last year. "It's a big nice surprise for the economy -- it came out of left field," said state economist Neal Fried.
"And it's a great surprise for shareholders."
The CIRI payouts dwarf the annual Alaska Permanent Fund dividend, paid out to all eligible Alaskans from the state's $27 billion oil wealth savings account. Last year's dividend was worth nearly $2,000. When the checks arrive, many Alaskans go shopping.
So it went with the distribution by CIRI, one of 13 regional corporations established under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which settled aboriginal lands claims.
A dramatic jump in car sales followed the CIRI distribution, according to Anchorage dealers. Many offered special deals to shareholders. Even those who didn't advertise cleaned up. Tony Chevrolet, for instance, sold new and used vehicles to about 30 CIRI shareholders, said general sales manager Paul Van Hoek.
"People were buying left and right, not only here, but all over town," he said.
Area home sales have shot up since the first of the year, said Dea Freeman, executive director of Multiple Listings Service in Anchorage. Freeman stopped short of attributing the surge to CIRI, however, saying low interest rates and a healthy local economy also could be a factor.
National Bank of Alaska, like other financial institutions in Anchorage, saw a significant jump in activity by CIRI shareholders, most notably in new accounts and home loans.
NBA helped CIRI set up financial workshops to advise shareholders in investments. The bank also held a session at Beans Cafe, an Anchorage soup kitchen serving the city's homeless, to help a handful of shareholders open accounts and receive their money through direct deposits.
Anchorage police and other local agencies also joined in, concerned that homeless shareholders with large rolls of cash would be targeted by street criminals. Deputy Police Chief Mark Mew said the department posted extra uniformed and undercover officers around downtown bars and other spots frequented by Alaska Natives during the week the first, larger checks were issued.
"Fortunately, a lot of the bad things we thought would happen never materialized," Mew said. "I like to think our efforts paid off."
Cook Inlet Tribal Council, a nonprofit organization serving Alaska Natives in the Anchorage area, helped shareholders receiving public assistance pay off debts and set up savings plans.
"This money has helped a lot of our clients get ahead, helped families succeed in a once-in-a-lifetime transition," said CITC president Gloria O'Neill. "For the most part, our shareholders made wise decisions."
And in Judy Huddleston's case, a necessary one.
Huddleston, 52, was living from paycheck to paycheck as a travel agent in Seattle. With the extra money, she could finally afford to pay for a hysterectomy. She also bought stocks and allowed herself one "wild and crazy" purchase: a $700 high-power spotting scope to better enjoy the view from her condominium.
"I was just absolutely flabbergasted to get that money," she said. "I literally sat on the floor and said, 'Oh my God."'