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Gut Check: Will the Bears leave Bourbonnais?

Saturday’s front-page Wisch List newspaper column from the Kankakee Daily Journal

Gut Check: Will the Bears leave Bourbonnais?

The WISCH LIST

June 27, 2009

When you pull off University Parkway in Romeoville and roll past a sweeping brick entrance onto the campus of Lewis University, it’s immediately apparent how serious the 1,200-student Catholic institution takes its athletics.

There, on your left, sits Brennan Field, home of Lewis Flyers baseball. Just ahead, a sign points the way to a summer basketball camp. And, if you turn the corner, you’ll weave your way past the Division II school’s softball diamond, soccer fields, tennis courts and track.

In sum, there are 16 varsity sports teams – including a nationally-ranked men’s volleyball squad – at Lewis. But that still doesn’t mean strapping junior Ken Hare gets to play his favorite sport at school.

“I’d like to,” said Hare, 20, of Chicago Heights, who’s spending his summer manning the university’s security booth. “But Lewis doesn’t have football.”

Yet, Lewis wants to host a football training camp.

Namely, the Chicago Bears’.

Make sense to you?

If not, you’re in good company (or, at least, my company). Because, I too found it something of a head-scratcher how a school can set such lofty goals.

When it doesn’t even have a set of goalposts.

Come July 31, the Bears will kick off their eighth summer of staging training camp at Olivet Nazarene University, and by all accounts the move to Bourbonnais from Platteville in 2001 has been nothing but a smashing success.

The locals love it. The crowds that flock from the city and the suburbs love it. The Chicago media loves it.

And I love it, too.

Not just because the camp has been well run and fan-friendly each time I’ve come down to visit, but also because the Bears’ presence at ONU has officially put my hometown on the map.

These days, it’s far less often that I get a puzzled looks from Illinoisans less geographically savvy than myself when I tell them that I hail from Bourbonnais.

“Where’s that?” has instead become, “Oh, sure, where the Bears train.”

There’s no doubt that hosting the Bears is a source of civic pride. And that’s surely one big reason why Romeoville and Lewis want them.

This August, the Bears’ current two-year contract with ONU expires. And although it includes an option for 2010, the Lewis Flyers – who have an aviation school and airport on campus – apparently sensed an opportunity to swoop in.

On June 11, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that, although the Bears likely will remain in Bourbonnais for their 2010 training camp and perhaps beyond, sources say the team is interested in moving camp closer to Chicago.

Now, personally, I think that the whole idea of holding camp should be to get away from home, not to simply set up a tent in your own backyard. But, nevertheless, officials from Lewis and Romeoville traveled to Halas Hall last week to hold talks with the Bears that team spokesman Scott Hagel described to the Daily Journal as “informal.”

Following that meeting in Lake Forest, the Chicago Tribune reported that Romeoville has proposed building a sports complex on Lewis’ campus, but that it isn’t even in the beginning stages of construction.

The complex was originally described as being a 40-acre site with at least eight baseball fields and modeled after New York’s Cooperstown Dreams Park. But Romeoville mayor John Noak has now said it could be outfitted to accommodate an NFL camp, apparently buying into the notion that a Dreams Park works even better as a Field of Dreams.

If you build it, the Bears will come.

But even if that were true, someone still has to pay for the thing.

And, while Lewis is rich in open spaces – its existing buildings take up only 130 acres of the 375-acre campus, leaving plenty of room for 300-pound NFL linemen to roam – the Joliet Herald-News said that constructing the proposed complex could cost between $10-$16 million and take several years.

Noak indicated in February that funding for the complex could include sponsorships, partnerships and usage fees. But $16 million is a big number in any economy. In this one, it’s huge.

Now, I admire Lewis’ moxie. Inscribed on its brick entrance is the Latin phrase “Signum Fidei,” which translates to “sign of the faith.” And there’s no doubt that in its pursuit of the Bears, the school is showing plenty of that.

But, regarding this issue, I actually found another sign on campus to be more fitting. It offered a list of “Common Sense Safety Awareness Tips” to students, with the last item encouraging them to “Go With Your Gut.”

Mine says that Bears Camp likely isn’t going anywhere.

At least not to Lewis any time soon.