By Jeff Bonty and Lee Provost
BOURBONNAIS — The village of Bourbonnais will no longer be the summer home for the Chicago Bears.
The NFL franchise announced Tuesday it will hold its entire training camp at Halas Hall, the team’s state-of-the-art facility in Lake Forest.
For the past 18 years, the Bears started their training camp at Olivet Nazarene University. Prior to 2002, the Bears trained at University of Wisconsin at Platteville. That partnership also lasted 18 years.
Olivet was kept fully informed as this process had unfolded, according to a statement from the university.
“The university has had a wonderful relationship with the Bears throughout these many years,” Olivet President Dr. John Bowling said in the statement. “We wish the team all the best as they make this transition.”
Major visitor draw
Camp attendance rose to 59,525 in 2019, according to the official count from the Kankakee County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
This figure represented a 20,075 jump — or a 50.8 percent increase — from the 2018 camp when 39,450 fans were counted.
Tourism calculations estimate that the almost 60,000 fans contributed an estimated $1.8 million in economic impact here during the three-week camp.
“I’m sad. My heart was breaking,” said Staci Wilken, executive director of the Kankakee County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “News like this always catches you by surprise, but we are grateful to have had them for 18 years.”
Wilken said hundreds of thousands of people discovered Bourbonnais and Kankakee County because of the Bears.
“I’m glad they were here,” she said. “It’s been a great relationship. We won’t change being Bears’ fans.
Bourbonnais Mayor Paul Schore agreed that the camp did a lot to promote Olivet Nazarene University and Kankakee County, as well.
“It’s been a very good 18-year run. We were fortunate to have had them,” Schore said. “We stopped being southern Illinois in the eyes of the Chicago area the first year of camp. There were so many pluses. Everything was run very professionally. I didn’t see any downside. People were concerned about traffic congestion, but that never happened. It was good entertainment. It was a fun ride. It was a gift to the community and I believe everybody won with the deal. That doesn’t happen often.”
Attracting the Bears
When the Bears were looking for a site closer to Chicago after spending 18 years at the University of Wisconsin at Platteville in 2001, Gary Griffin, retired Olivet administrator, played a key part in bringing the university and Bears together back.
The first camp at Olivet was held in 2002, and Griffin worked as the camp’s director for the first 16 years of the partnership.
“I’m sad, but totally understand the Bears going in this direction,” Griffin told the Daily Journal. “I want to join with the university and community and thank the Bears for the experience and being gracious guests. The Bears will always be a part of Olivet and Olivet will always be a part of the Bears.”
As news spreads of the departure, Bears president and CEO Ted Phillips commended Olivet and the communities of Bourbonnais, Bradley and Kankakee for their support over the last 18 years.
“Olivet Nazarene University continues to be a valued and committed partner,” Phillips said. “But with the recent investment in our campus expansion and state-of-the-art facilities in Lake Forest, we feel it is important to stay home for training camp. We would like to thank Olivet Nazarene University, including president John Bowling, and the Bourbonnais community for their 18 years of partnership and hospitality.”
Fans will still have the opportunity to watch practices for free at Halas Hall. A limited number of free tickets will be available to attend the practices. Additional details regarding the training camp schedule and free public tickets will be announced in the spring.