Kadner: Tourism, soccer leaders want a field of dreams for the Southland
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org January 10, 2013 4:56PM
Soccer balls on the field during practice for the MLS Cup between FC Dallas and the Colorado Rapids at BMO Field on November 20, 2010 in Toronto, Canada. | Getty Images
Updated: February 12, 2013 2:37PM
Jim Garrett wants a field of dreams in the Southland.
It would eventually encompass 200 acres; include 25 fields for soccer, lacrosse, field hockey and/or football; 10 baseball and softball diamonds; 10 courts for sand volleyball; eight tennis courts; and five acres to park 1,200 cars.
And that doesn’t include the indoor component of the facility, which would sprawl over 2.3 acres and accommodate an indoor soccer field, a fitness/weight room, meeting rooms, administrative offices, locker rooms and perhaps gymnastics, golf simulators, sports science labs and a regulation-size swimming pool.
I admit to stifling a laugh at the sheer extravagance of the idea, but Garrett, president of the Chicago Southland Convention & Visitors Bureau, spotted the smirk on my face and grew deadly serious.
“This would bring thousands of people to the Southland every year,” he said. “It would mean business for hotels, restaurants, stores.
“It would create brand-new businesses nearby.
“We’re talking millions of dollars that people are already spending, but they’re not spending it here because the south suburbs don’t have the proper facilities.”
Joel Koester, sales executive for sports, hobby and consumer activities with the convention and visitors bureau, said even during the Great Recession people still spent big money on organized sports for their children.
“People are willing to spend so their children can participate in sports, and we see it with the growth in travel teams for baseball, and soccer is becoming even bigger than baseball,” he said.
The Rockford Park District already has a giant facility called Sportscore and has plans to expand it, Garrett told me.
According to a website pitching the expansion project, visitors from across the country who visit the Sportscore spend $15 million each year in the region, with about $1.6 million going to local sports programs. The expansion project would increase revenue by an additional $8 million to $16 million a year, including more than $1 million in additional tax revenue.
Branko Ilic, president of the Illinois State Soccer Association, said he’s already bringing regional tournaments to the Southland that have attracted thousands of people.
“We’ve been using Gaelic Park to play soccer, but those fields really aren’t groomed for soccer,” he said.
There are no indoor soccer facilities at Gaelic Park, which is another drawback.
“I could bring soccer tournaments here from all over the country if we had the proper facilities,” said Ilic, who lives in Lansing.
“I’m south suburban. I want to do this for the suburbs. I have the connections throughout the soccer community to do this.”
He said there are girls and boys soccer leagues men’s and women’s soccer leagues, and soccer leagues for older people.
Waukegan has built a sports facility on 138 acres at a cost of $22.5 million, Garrett said.
Schaumburg opened up a 72-acre site in 1995 that has expanded to 107 acres and includes synthetic soccer fields.
Garrett doesn’t have a specific site in mind for the mega sports complex he envisions, and I couldn’t pin him down on a cost estimate.
He said he read a recent column I wrote about an Oak Lawn couple who had bought the Field of Dreams in Iowa and hoped I would write something that might attract like-minded people who wanted to invest in the Southland.
“Build it and they will come,” Garrett said, quoting from the movie.
“I’m hoping maybe there’s a farmer out there who is ready to retire and wants to leave a legacy to the people by donating his land for this project,” Garrett said.
“Maybe there’s a wealthy businessman out there with some vision who wants to do something not only for children but create a lasting memorial that would benefit the region.
“I just know this is something we need to do just like the Tinley Park Convention Center was something that would benefit the entire area.
“We have the transportation system — I-94, I-57, I-80 all come through our area — so you can get here from every direction.
“This region encompasses 62 municipalities, and all of them would benefit because their children would be able to use these facilities.”
Garrett said once he has the land, he can help a municipality access financial resources to help build the complex.
I told him that in these difficult economic times, it’s hard to persuade taxpayers to front the money for programs that exist. Trying to convince them to fund a mega sports complex, I said, might be next to impossible.
“You would be surprised what people are willing to do to provide their children with top-notch recreational opportunities,” Koester said.
Actually, I’m seen it with my own eyes.
Parents who have lost jobs, who have seen their salaries cut and their taxes increase still seem to find the money to put their children in gymnastics classes, in soccer leagues and on traveling baseball teams.
They’re willing to sacrifice to give their children a chance to fulfill their dreams.
It may not be sensible. But it’s what people do.
At one point, in jest, I suggested that the state owns plenty of land it bought to build an airport in Peotone.
Garrett quickly informed me that downstate Rantoul has converted part of the former Chanute Air Force Base into a giant soccer/football complex. That city’s website claims the facility jump-started its economy.
“We don’t have to start with 200 acres,” Garrett said. “We can start with 75 or 100 acres and add facilities or link to other sites.
“It could be a private-public partnership. We just want to get this thing started. It’s something we need.
“If you put the word out there, maybe someone will come forward and say they want to be a part of this.”
I have to confess Garrett’s enthusiasm for the big idea tickles me.
It’s certainly a big dream. Now all that’s needed is the field.