Loss of Rams a tough hit for Macomb

July 24, 2005


MACOMB, Ill. -- Longtime fan Randall Barnwell recently picked up three St. Louis Rams jerseys for $55 at a shop in downtown Macomb, where blue-and-gold souvenirs have been selling at cut-rate prices since the team moved its summer training camp after being in the area for nine years.

But local officials say the Rams' switch to their training facility near St. Louis is no bargain for businesses that catered to the nearly 200,000 fans who flocked to Macomb for summer workouts since 1996. The influx of people pumped up to $1 million a year into the economy of the region.

''It's not going to break anybody, but it was a nice bonus,'' said Tim Thorman, the owner of a downtown restaurant where sales jumped about 20 percent during the Rams' nearly monthlong camps.

Along with money, townspeople say they'll miss the prestige the NFL connection brought to a region that once dubbed itself "Forgottonia,'' a tongue-in-cheek jab about federal and state dollars that many thought routinely bypassed the largely rural area midway between Peoria and the Iowa border.

Media coverage bandied Macomb's name nationwide, creating exposure that economic-development officials believe helped attract some businesses to the area.

''It's been great marketing. We never could have afforded to pay for that kind of marketing,'' said Kim Pierce, the executive director of the Macomb Area Economic Development Corp.

Others say they'll miss the stargazing, keeping an eye out for Marshall Faulk, Marc Bulger and other Rams on the practice fields at Western Illinois University and in restaurants and nightclubs around town.

''We were going to try to go get autographs and stuff,'' said Barnwell, 30, a Rams fan since the team's days in Los Angeles.

Barnwell moved a few months ago from Peoria to Avon, about 15 miles northeast of Macomb, and had hoped this summer to watch a few workouts.

But Bob Wallace, the Rams' executive vice president and general counsel, held out hope for a possible return to Macomb after this camp, which kicks off Thursday and runs through Aug. 19.

He called the move an experiment, following an NFL trend that will put 15 of the 32 teams in the league on their home turf for training camp this season, up from only six teams 10 years ago.

Hometown camps keep players in state-of-the-art facilities where they train the rest of the year and have better access to medical treatment, Wallace said. Staying home also ends worries about players making the three-hour drive between St. Louis and Macomb and having possible wrecks on the mostly two-lane highway, he said.

But players might face more distractions in St. Louis and lose the bonds that can form during their weeks out of town, Wallace said. He also questioned whether the hometown practice fields will hold up under the extra pounding and whether the facility can accommodate the thousands of fans who are expected to turn out.

''Until you do it, you just never know,'' Wallace said.

He said Macomb would be a front-runner if the team decides to move its camp away from the St. Louis area again.

''The experience we had at Macomb and the welcome we've gotten from the townspeople has been phenomenal,'' Wallace said. "I can think of no reason why Macomb wouldn't be at the top of any list.''

Becky Paulsen, the president of the Macomb Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Development Corp., said Macomb stands a 50-50 chance of bringing back the Rams and their NFL luster.

In the city of about 20,000, Rams camp propped up the summer economy while about 8,000 of Western Illinois' 12,000 students were away on break.

''That's about all we have in the summer is the Rams; it's the whole city's income in the summertime,'' said Jason Kreps, a manager at a downtown restaurant and bar.

If the Rams opt to stay in the St. Louis area, Macomb officials say they will try to woo another NFL franchise, such as the Bears, who practice in Bourbonnais, Ill., or the Indianapolis Colts, whose camp is in Terre Haute, Ind.

''Right now, we're just leaving the door open for the Rams,'' said Larry Mortier, the vice president of advancement and public services for Western Illinois. ''It's the wise thing to do until they see how things go in St. Louis.''

Western Illinois athletic director Tim Van Alstine also is hopeful the Rams will return because they helped boost the sports programs at the university. ''When we recruit, we can say if our field is good enough for Marshall Faulk, it's good enough for any 18-year-old kid,'' Van Alstine said. ''We're still crossing our fingers that we'll get them back.''