Steeleville has set a $1.5 million upper limit for raffles and poker runs conducted within the city limits -- a number sure to draw even more interest to the weekly Queen of Hearts raffle hosted by the American Legion post.
The city council set the limit last week even as Steeleville Mayor Bob Sutton was expressing concern that the crush of raffle participants trying to get into the American Legion Hall for huge pots could create safety hazards.
Queen of Hearts raffles are taking Illinois, particularly southern Illinois, by storm. Nonprofits like American Legion and VFW posts have used them to pump up their own funds, by taking a cut off each ticket sold.
"Steeleville has the largest (Queen of Hearts) pot in the county, by far," Sutton said. That can bring people out by the hundreds, or even more, since the winner must be present to take home the whole pot (a winner not present gets half the money).
The next Queen of Hearts drawing at the Legion will be at 8 p.m. Thursday, for a pot of $598,000.
"We (the city) are going to have to monitor it to make sure people are not freezing to death outside," Sutton said. "What if something happens inside the building -- can we get emergency personnel in there, quickly?"
Sutton said he heard the Legion did a good job at last Thursday night's drawing, by turning people away once the maximum number of occupants set by the fire department was reached.
Harry Rahlfs, the Legion post commander, said they have started using armbands to keep track of the number of people inside the hall.
Rahlfs said the current $598,000 pot is the biggest since the Legion started hosting Queen of Hearts raffles more than a year ago.
At this point, he's OK with the $1.5 million limit.
"It seems like a high figure but you should never say never," he said Monday. "You don't think it'll go that high but who knows?"
Sutton said the $1.5 million limit was chosen because city officials don't think the Legion building could handle the crowds if a bigger pot develops. In north central Illinois, for example, the small city of Morris has a $2.5 million limit.
But Sutton said communities all over Illinois, particularly small towns, are concerned about the potential problems big raffle pots can bring.
"Other organizations in other towns didn't plan for the crowds that ended up there," the mayor said. "Should the Legion have a fire, even a minor fire, we'd have to park (fire trucks) in the street because of the cars in the parking lot.
"We're a town of 2,000, we could have 800-900 people in that building. In warm weather, we could have as many people in town as in the building," Sutton added.
Rahlfs said the Legion has monitors roaming the hall during raffle nights. He said there are speakers in the parking lot, so people who can't get inside can still hear the drawings, as being in the parking lot counts as being on-site.
He said the Legion uses they money they make to support the organization, plus contribute to nonprofit programs the Legion sponsors, like oratory contests, Boys State and the police academy.
The Legion also helps support The Haven, a cabin on Crab Orchard Lake frequented by veterans at the VA Hospital or those in nursing homes.
Rahlfs said maintenance is coming for the Legion Hall, which was built in the 1960s.
"Our buildings are getting old and nothing has been done for years," he said.
Besides setting a top limit for pots, which state law requires all communities with raffles to do, Steeleville also had to require surety bonds for raffles and poker runs.
Sutton said the city was careful not to set those bonds too high, so as not to cause a hardship for groups that run smaller raffles in town. A $10,000 surety bond costs $100, for example.