By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) With the Chicago Bears entering the final year of their contract with Olivet Nazarene University, the summer of 2013 could be the last that the team spends in Bourbonnais for its annual training camp.
But it won’t be if tourism officials in Kankakee County have any say about it. And they likely do.
On Wednesday, speaking for the area’s collective desire to keep the Bears around, the Kankakee County Convention & Visitors Bureau board made its voice as loud and clear as a fan at Soldier Field. According to the Daily Journal in Kankakee, the board voted unanimously to approve a $500,000 commitment to fund upgrades to the team’s summer training complex.
“This is great news for the community,” ONU director of university relations Gary Griffin told the Daily Journal in Kankakee on Wednesday. “This is the first step toward saving the Chicago Bears’ training camp.”
While the small print regarding the timeline of the payment still needs to be hammered out, the Daily Journal reports that the hope among local officials is that the funding will help keep the Bears at ONU for at least eight more years.
According to the newspaper, the school and the team have agreed that the campus, which has served as the Bears’ summer home since 2002, needs more than $1 million to upgrade its practice facilities. To pay for those improvements, ONU officials asked the Kankakee County Convention & Visitors Bureau for an up-front $250,000 contribution followed by an additional $50,000 per year for the next five years until 2018. A resolution supporting that funding request was approved on Wednesday by an 11-0 vote.
This past Saturday, the Daily Journal reported that the improvements to the facilities would include a 5,000-square-foot addition to the locker room, new sod on four practice fields and one game field, new weight-training equipment, new furniture for five coaches, management and ownership apartments and new king-size mattresses for players.
To pay for the upgrades, the Convention & Visitors Bureau is expected to dip into its “rainy day” fund and the Kankakee County Board’s executive committee will discuss on Feb. 28 increasing the county’s hotel/motel tax to generate additional funding.
Interestingly, while ONU has talked of a desire to gain a long-term commitment from the Bears, the Daily Journal reports today that the NFL team can only sign a two-year deal because of government bonding restrictions.
“However, ONU officials have noted, the Bears are pleased with the Bourbonnais facility and want to stay for many years to come,” the Daily Journal writes. From this vantage point, that sounds as if the Bears may sign an official two-year contract with ONU but then have a gentlemen’s agreement to keep camp on campus beyond that.
ONU has asked that a funding plan for upgrades be outlined by April 1, which likely is the earliest date that any formal contract extension between the Bears and Olivet could be brokered.
The Bears are Kankakee County’s most precious tourism asset so it’s a priority to keep the team in Bourbonnais. Each year, Bears camp attracts about 100,000 spectators to campus – and untold statewide publicity.
Frankly, the Bears have put Bourbonnais on the map.
With that in mind, Kankakee Mayor Nina Epstein told the Daily Journal on Saturday, “We can’t afford to lose that presence. You can’t put a price on the exposure, on that publicity. This is an activity that we can ill afford to lose.”
And from the looks of Wednesday’s $500,000 resolution, it appears that Kankakee County can indeed afford to keep it.
That’s good for the area. And good for Bears fans, too.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.