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Loss of Bears games to lockout could wallop Chicago’s economy

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Updated: June 30, 2011 11:15AM



The plea is addressed to NFL players and owners and is stamped with a Chicago postmark. It’s signed by vendors and waiters, cooks and chefs, hotel maids and stadium workers.

It’s to be read before the next negotiating session to end a lockout that could result in games being cancelled and jobs lost:

‘‘Get that deal done,’’ said Michael Stolfe, president of Connie’s Pizza. ‘‘It’s going to affect so many other people. It’s hard for someone like myself to understand. They’ve got billions of dollars to split up. They have to find a way to do it.’’

Players and owners bickering about how to divide an estimated $9  billion in annual revenue aren’t the only ones who stand the lose if a deal to end the NFL’s ongoing labor impasse doesn’t end soon. Chicago’s already fragile economy would suffer another late hit. It won’t just be football-starved fans with something at stake. Everyday Chicagoans will find themselves stuck in the middle. While this labor feud appears to be between millionaire players and billionaire owners, they are far from the only ones with fur in this fight.

‘‘When big guys start shooting at each other, little guys get hit,’’ said Jerry Roper, head of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. ‘‘We need every job, whether it’s someone working on the side making a few extra bucks or someone manufacturing the hot dogs they sell at the game.’’

Although the lockout appears to be winding down, leading many to believe the regular season will start as scheduled, time is of the essence. Both sides must ratify a collective bargaining agreement, rosters must be assembled, and players must be allowed to get in shape for the upcoming season — leading most observers to believe the drop-dead date for a compromise that would allow training camp to start on time could be as early as Monday. That means the countdown is on, and for businesses who rely on Bears-related revenue, the clock might as well be a bell tolling from atop the Water
Tower and reverberating throughout the city, suburbs and beyond.

Roper estimates the cancellation of one exhibition game at Soldier Field will cost the city at least $3 million. Factor in what people typically spend on beer, pizza and snacks when they watch at home, and that number skyrockets to $7 million to $8 million, which he said is a conservative figure.

‘‘Things are dragging on too long,’’ said Bourbonnais, Ill., mayor Paul Schore, who estimates his community will lose at least $1 million if the Bears cancel training camp at Olivet Nazarene University. ‘‘I believe there is going to be an agreement, but they could decide to have more of a minicamp situation at Halas Hall and forego training camp here, which would be a big disappointment.’’

Connie’s 15,000-square-foot Archer Avenue location was so packed during the Bears’ NFC Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers in January that Stolfe hoped the phone would stop ringing. He predicts a lockout will cost him 500 game-day orders and force him to reduce expenses by at least 10 percent, which means 50 fewer jobs chain-wide.

‘‘Football is definitely what we depend on most in terms of revenue,’’ said Max Waisvisz, owner of Gold Coast Tickets. ‘‘We’re going to have to roll with the punches.’’

On a normal Sunday, the River North sports bar Mother Hubbard’s is staffed by one bartender and one server. NFL Sundays require three bartenders, six servers and a door person. Local businesses that supply the bar’s meat, produce, beer and
liquor also would suffer.

‘‘I didn’t realize until recently, when I really thought about it, how big of an impact this could be on our economy,’’ said Mother Hubbard’s manager Alex Robinson. ‘‘It’s as simple as the server not making as much as she would usually make and not buying something.’’

One local expert says every game lost could cost Chicago $650,000 in tax revenue on stadium sales alone, a shortfall that could result in additional tax increases.

‘‘At least they will be suffering with us,’’ Roper said of players who also stand to lose paychecks during a lockout.

Jim Riebandt can’t put a monetary figure on what he stands to lose. The Arlington Heights-based attorney and lifelong Bears fan has served as the public-address announcer at Soldier Field for 28 years. The Bears’ first home exhibition game against the Buffalo Bills on Aug. 13 would be his 300th game. Oddly enough, his first year behind the mic was 1982, when the season was disrupted by a labor stoppage.

‘‘It would just be nice to get the milestone,’’ Riebandt said. ‘‘I’ll be 61 in July. I can’t imagine I would still have the pipes 10 years from now to still be doing this. You don’t have many 70-year-old PA announcers except for [legendary New York announcer] Bob Shepherd.’’

Together, the voices become a chorus. From downtown hot spots to downstate taverns, when it comes to the wind whistling through an empty Soldier Field on NFL game days, the song is the same.

‘‘When the Bears do good we do good,’’ Stolfe said. ‘‘I can’t imagine it will come to that. I don’t even want to think about it.’’



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