Summer 'Cheese League' boosts tourism in Wisconsin, Minnesota

August 04, 1991|By David Young | David Young,Chicago Tribune

RIVER FALLS, WIS. RBB — RIVER FALLS, Wis. -- The Kansas City Chiefs were coming to town for a month, so Lee Jacobs took the opportunity to slash the price of his tortellini a la fini by $3 a plate.

He also chucked the escargot and cod amandine, replacing them on the menu with a California veggie sandwich and burgers.

The new menu is part of the metamorphosis of The Gladstone, from what Jacobs described as a fine dining restaurant that wasn't quite making it, to a sports bar. The conversion was timed to coincide with a local summer festival in this population-12,000 exurb of the Twin Cities, and especially with the arrival of professional football's Chiefs for their first summer camp in River Falls.

The euphoria is pervasive in River Falls, the newest entry in what is now being called the "Cheese League." Five professional football teams hold their summer camps in Wisconsin or adjacent Minnesota, and state and local officials consider that a key element in a campaign to boost Wisconsin's once-stagnating tourism industry.

"Platteville was an eye-opener for the county with concentrated numbers of Bears fans spending money," said James L. Schneider, executive director of the Grant County Economic Development Corp. in the southwest corner of the state. "Wisconsin is becoming to football what Florida is to baseball."

State officials are hoping to lure additional NFL teams to eager state university campuses.

Besides the Chiefs, the current league roster includes:

* The Green Bay Packers, near home in De Pere, Wis.

* The Chicago Bears, who in 1984 picked as their summer camp site an obscure University of Wisconsin campus in an equally obscure southwest Wisconsin town called Platteville.

* The New Orleans Saints, now in their fourth year in La Crosse, Wis.

* The Minnesota Vikings, who have been camping across the line from La Crosse in Mankato, Minn., since 1965, but may move back to the Twin Cities.

The collective impact of the growing Cheese League, although it varies from town to town, is substantial. The five teams combined pay substantially more than $1 million to five local colleges just to rent facilities and board their players and staff.

"The NFL is just one piece of the puzzle we're starting to tap," said Scott Fromader, Thompson's director of operations.

A 1986 study commissioned by the Packers gives some idea of the financial impact a professional football team can have. The study by a local consultant estimated the Pack had a yearly $35 million direct and indirect impact ($12 million in new outside income and the rest trickle-down dollars) on the local economy.

A single home game resulted in more than $2 million in revenue at Lambeau Field and more than $435,000 in revenue in Brown County restaurants, motels and stores -- 90 percent of it from fans from outside the Green Bay area.

The Cheese League can't match the year-round numbers for Wisconsin's home team, but a study done by an economics professor indicates that in 1987, Bears fans spent $1 million in the Platteville area in the three weeks the team practiced there.

The direct impact in other towns varies to a large extent with the distance between the camp and the NFL team's home market. The New Orleans Saints have little effect on the economy of La Crosse 1,200 miles to the north, according to Mayor Patrick Zielke. But the effect of the Vikings on Mankato, 60 miles southwest of the Twin Cities, appears to be only slightly less than that of the Bears.

The possible loss of the Vikings and the estimated 28,000 spectators they attract each summer has officials of Mankato State University and Mayor Stanley Christ looking for ways to keep the camp in Mankato. They fear the team could move its camp to new facilities in the Twin Cities area next year.

"I think we have taken them for granted," Christ said. "I don't think the local people supported the Vikings."

On the other hand, officials of Eastern Illinois University in downstate Charleston said they survived the departure of the then-St. Louis Cardinals' summer camp in 1987. The school simply booked other summer activities into facilities, although the athletic booster fund suffered a major loss of revenue.

The biggest benefit from the emerging Cheese League may be intangible.

"The Chicago Bears definitely put Platteville on the map," said Andrew Lewis, University of Wisconsin extension resource director, whose territory includes Grant County around Platteville. "It's been a lot easier to work with people [on industrial development] when they know where Platteville is."

It is difficult to calculate in economic terms the benefit of the Cheese League to NFL teams. Relatively cool summer weather is a big factor, as are the availability of other professional teams with which to practice and the consistent quality of athletic facilities on the campuses of state schools in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

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