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Summer 'Cheese League' boosts tourism in Wisconsin, Minnesota


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.

"It wasn't really a financial decision," said Tim Connolly, Chiefs executive vice president. "We looked in California, Colorado, Michigan and Wisconsin. We chose Wisconsin [a state university campus] because they already had two teams and understood the requirements of NFL football teams. Their facilities are terrific."

The availability of other nearby teams for practice sessions relieves some of the pressure on NFL franchises now that the league limits rosters to 80 players, NFL executives claim. The problems come as the injury lists grow longer and the teams run short of players at certain positions. The Saints plan to practice with the Chiefs and Packers at various times. The Chiefs also will practice with the Vikings.

"Working against another club is becoming important, instead of pounding on your own people," said Saints general manager Jim Finks, who led the team north after two camps in Louisiana.

"But the biggest advantage is to get out of this [hot and humid Louisiana] climate. It is almost inhumane to ask those big men to work in that type of heat and humidity."

Officials of the various colleges said they add 100 to 130 part-time jobs, mostly filled by students, to handle chores in the kitchen, dorms and practice fields when camps are in session.

Towns like La Crosse sweeten the pot for teams by providing equipment and services donated by local firms. The Keep the Saints in La Crosse Task Force, an organization of local businesses, scrounges up automobiles, golf carts and soft drinks for the team, according to Alma Kohnert, chairman of the organization and publicist for Central Telephone.

Mary Halada, budget officer for the University of Wisconsin branch in River Falls, estimates that local sponsors, some from towns as far away as 25 miles, donated up to $100,000 worth of goods and services for use by the Chiefs. A local John Deere dealer lent $80,000 worth of tractors for use during summer camp, she said.

Like financial officers at the other institutions that play host to summer camps, Halada said the NFL is not a big moneymaker for the school. The $70,000 the Vikings paid Mankato State last year, excluding food service, was a small part of the school's $90 million annual budget, according to H. Dean Trauger, vice president of fiscal affairs.

"For most of what they rent, we break even," said Stephen B. Zielke, assistant chancellor for business affairs at the UW Platteville campus and the state's point man with the NFL. "But what we are renting [to the Bears] would normally be empty in the summer."

Thus far, Platteville is the envy of the other Cheese League towns. The proximity to Chicago, 180 miles to the southeast, and the success of the Bears in the NFL over the past 10 years results in crowds of 2,000 or more just to watch practices.

The crowds in other cities vary from 200 in La Crosse -- which, with a population of 50,000, is the largest of the Cheese League towns -- to 500 in Mankato.

However, the best barometer of whether the Cheese League will survive and prosper is far to the north in River Falls.

Officials there admit their community, before the Chiefs arrived, was unknown outside the immediate area.

Bill Warner, head of the Pierce County Economic Development Corp., complains that the state spends most of its development promotion funds trying to lure industry from Illinois to southern Wisconsin, virtually ignoring the potential of attracting industry from Minnesota, a high-tax state, to west central Wisconsin. State officials say they are working to correct that.

The UW branch there is the biggest employer in town with 1,600, and an estimated half the residents commute to jobs in the Twin Cities about 20 miles to the west. Tourism isn't much of an industry, and most of the commercial growth in the area has been 10 miles to the north along Interstate Highway 94 in Hudson.

River Falls officials hope the Chiefs' move there will put the town on the map and, like the Bears in Platteville, act as a catalyst for other development. The cooperative efforts of the school, business community and town that prepared for the Chiefs camp could be channeled to other types of development, officials claim.

"If the Chiefs have confidence in us, then we must have something," said Halada.

Nobody in town expects huge crowds of tourists from Kansas City, more than 430 miles away, although Warner has prepared a brochure to be mailed to Kansas City industries extolling the virtues of doing business in Wisconsin.

However, many local businessmen were quick to capitalize on what they hope will become crowds of the curious from the Twin Cities and upper Wisconsin. Summer camp is one of the few places people can see professional football players up close.

Jacobs and his partner saw the Chiefs' arrival as an opportunity to revive his stagnating Main Street restaurant by converting it to a sports bar.

"The other format -- fine dining -- didn't work too well in River Falls. We wanted to make a change," he said. "A combination of River Falls Days [the local week-long festival] and the Chiefs' coming caused us to go that way. The timing was right."

Although the verdict on The Gladstone's new format hasn't been rendered, Jacobs said early indications are good.

"In the first two days we had been open, our bar business increased substantially, and I had to call our distributor for more beer," he said.

Across Main Street, Craig W. Foster cautiously stocked his sports store with paraphernalia featuring the Chiefs. The Green Bay Packers shirts and hats are still in stock but harder to find.

But he didn't buy a huge inventory, and most of the shirts and hats he offers are special production items billing River Falls as the summer home of the Chiefs.

"As I sell them, I order more," Foster said.

"What's selling are items connecting the university, the state, the city and the Chiefs," he said. "I'd say we have done $5,000 to $6,000 in shirts in the last couple of months. The most popular are the Cheese League shirts [featuring all four Wisconsin camps]."

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