Bethlehem feeling effects of life without Eagles camp

The tackling sleds at Lehigh University's football practice fields will go unused by the Eagles this summer. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
The tackling sleds at Lehigh University's football practice fields will go unused by the Eagles this summer. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
Posted: July 22, 2013

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Like so much of this tired old steel city, the walls at Starters Pub are populated by ghosts.

There, past Eagles stars smile broadly in photographs commemorating their visits to the popular sports bar along Route 378, just south of where the now-idled Bethlehem Steel foundry once roared.

The presence of Donovan McNabb, Jon Runyan, and others, like the NFL team's annual stay at nearby Lehigh University since 1996, was a point of pride for the pub and the region.

But now, with the Eagles set to open their 2013 training camp elsewhere on Monday, those images have joined the many relics of a brighter Bethlehem past.

In March, the Eagles announced that after 17 years at Lehigh, they were shifting their training camp to the team's NovaCare facility in South Philadelphia. For many in and around this Northampton County community of 75,000, the departure left a large hole in the middle of summer, a void that is spiritual as much as economic.

"We certainly miss them," said Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan. "Having the Eagles here was a great source of pride. And as a dad with a son who plays high school football, I certainly miss the opportunity to go there with him and have a great day."

In the end, a summer tradition that began in Brian Dawkins' rookie year, continued through the pandemonium inspired by Terrell Owens' 2004 arrival and the shock of Garrett Reid's tragic death last August couldn't survive the organization's first coaching change in 14 years.

The move, both sides contended, wasn't about saving money or erasing the haunting memories of the drug-related death of Andy Reid's son a year ago.

Instead, the impetus was the mid-January hiring of Chip Kelly, a coach with a penchant for the kind of video, computer and medical technology available only at NovaCare, and changes in the Collective Bargaining Agreement that loosened restrictions on the time and nature of workouts.

"It just became harder to replicate at the off-site location what we have here," said Eagles president Don Smolenski. "That along with coach Kelly's approach to training made everything come together."

The change of locations also fits into a wider NFL pattern. Nineteen of the league's 32 teams have relocated their summer facilities to team headquarters, though two of the Eagles' NFC East rivals, the Cowboys and Redskins, are bucking that trend.

The Eagles, according to Lehigh athletic director Joe Sterrett, were sensitive to how their withdrawal just four months before the start of camp might be perceived.

"They were properly conscious about the possibility of getting beat up," said Sterrett. "And some people here did have negative reactions. But the team felt like it had to roll the dice and I think most everyone understood that."

While the divorce might not have been bitter, it will come with a price tag for Lehigh, the Eagles, and Bethlehem, a city still trying to recover from the dissolution of its signature industry, Bethlehem Steel.

The Eagles' annual camp expenditure, though not made public, almost certainly exceeded $1 million. The Cowboys, for example, estimated they spent $1.76 million on their 2012 training camp, though that cost likely was inflated by its location in Oxnard, Calif., 1,500 miles from Dallas.

"From the get-go, this was never a financial decision," said Smolenski.

Any savings realized by staying put this summer will be offset by the loss of revenue from training-camp sponsorships and by the payment the Eagles made to Lehigh for their abrupt departure.

"They came up with an estimate of a fair settlement before we did," said Sterrett of the undisclosed amount.

The university, meanwhile, won't be hiring the additional food and security workers they needed each summer. It will lose whatever the Eagles paid annually for food, housing, utilities, and the use of fields and facilities the team helped maintain.

Some of that lost revenue, Lehigh hopes, will come back through additional summer camps, festivals and trade shows that now can be scheduled those weeks.

The departure surprised and disappointed many here, not just football fans but businesses like Starters Pub.

"We were really disappointed," said Mo Taylor, the pub's manager. "We're going to miss that additional revenue and traffic."

Because of its proximity to the dormitories where the Eagles resided, players frequently dropped in.

"As soon as one would walk in, you'd see the cellphones light up. Pretty soon the place would be packed," said Taylor.

The economic impact on Bethlehem and the rest of the Lehigh Valley is difficult to gauge. The Eagles estimate that an average of 6,000 fans attended camp daily. They bought gas, food, and, occasionally, hotel rooms.

No financial study was ever done, but when Oxnard conducted one in 2012, it estimated Cowboys camp generated $3.6 million annually.

"There's no question that having the Eagles here gave us a swagger. It brought people here, showcased the Valley," said Tony Ianelli, president of the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce. "As for any economic spin-off, it was welcome but it certainly wasn't tremendous. The impact was reasonably narrow."

The era's high point came in 2004 when the additions of Owens and Javon Kearse lured 25,000 fans to the camp's opening day. Roads were clogged most of the day. Restaurants and bars overflowed.

That level of excitement, residents said, never was duplicated.

"Since then, the daily numbers have been down," said Taylor. "Not long after that you had the rise in gas prices and the [troubled] economy. Things were never really the same."

The more significant loss might be the marketing benefits the university and region derived. Philadelphia TV stations, several of which subsequently opened Lehigh Valley bureaus, made training camp a regular feature of nightly newscasts.

Lehigh, said Sterrett, noted a significant rise in applications from Philadelphia-area students, particularly in the early years.

"That wasn't our goal," he said, "but it happened. And that level never disappeared. . . . This institution and this region are much better-known in the Philadelphia marketplace than they were 17 years ago."

Many businesses noticed the same.

"It was great to see our name mentioned in the paper and hear it on the radio and see it in Peter King's column [the Sports Illustrated writer annually listed his favorite training-camp food] every year," said Jeff Vaclavik, owner of the Deja Brew Coffeehouse and Deli on Fourth Street. "That's good publicity. It leads to business."

According to Vaclavik, camp provided Deja Brew with a boost in what otherwise would be down time before Lehigh's fall semester started.

"In our business [coffee], we tend to be slow in the summer so it was nice those few weeks when the streets were filled with fans in Eagles colors. We'll take a financial hit, I'm sure."

Technology needs

For many in the Eagles organization, last August's heroin-overdose death of Garrett Reid, the 29-year-old son of the then-head coach, in a Lehigh dormitory room was so traumatic that the thought of returning was a difficult one.

"I asked them that specifically," said Sterrett. "I said, 'Is this a Garrett Reid thing?' Everyone who knew Garrett will still have a hard time on the anniversary, even in Philadelphia. They said, 'Yeah, it would have been hard with all the reminders, but that wasn't the reason.' "

Like Smolenski, Sterrett said the key factor was the technology NFL teams are now dependent upon.

"They've got nutritionists working with each individual player," he said. "They've got workouts geared to stimulate weight loss or muscle mass-building or whatever. The playbooks are on iPads and their contents are edited for specific players and workouts. Then there are all the sports-medicine components.

"You can do all that at NovaCare. But you can't replicate that, can't transport that here."

Around the league, and in the Eagles' own competitive NFC East, philosophies vary on the benefits of stay-at-home camps.

"I don't know that there's any right way," said Smolenski. "[The differences] probably speak to coaches' philosophies on how you build camaraderie."

The Giants, like the Eagles, abandoned a longtime college site in Albany this year to return to the Meadowlands.

The Redskins, meanwhile, who had summered at the team's Ashburn, Va., facilities, have reversed the trend. This summer they will be training in Richmond.

Jerry Jones' Cowboys, not surprisingly, are mavericks when it comes to training, doing so in California.

"A lot of clubs are going back to having training camp at their home facility," Dallas coach Jason Garrett told the Dallas Morning News. "There are logistical advantages to that. But we always felt it was important to get away and start to develop your team. There's some shared commitment going on that you can rely on as the season wears on."

Lehigh officials, noting the changes in training routines and the number of teams who were abandoning longtime sites, had long anticipated the relationship's end.

In 2012, when Reid was fired and the search for a successor began, the wall's handwriting became easier to decipher.

As the coaching hunt intensified in January, so did talks between the team and Lehigh. The discoveries the Eagles made in their search were probably the final nails in the camp's coffin.

"They very candidly explained to us that the process of searching for a coach is an extraordinary opportunity," said Sterrett. "You get exposure to a variety of philosophical approaches, the practical ramifications of them, everything. They were gaining a great sense of what people were doing and ultimately they decided to hire Chip Kelly. They knew that was going to mean some significant shifts in the way they do things."

After Kelly's hiring, Smolenski met with Sterrett and Mary Kay Baker, Lehigh's liaison with the Eagles, for three hours. Assuming he could persuade Mayor Nutter, the Phillies, Comcast-Spectacor, and NovaCare's neighbors, he told them the team would be departing for Philadelphia.

"With evolution they've seen in teaching techniques and the use of technology at the university level," Smolenski said, "they were very understanding. But it was hard to have that conversation."

Meanwhile, on Monday, Goosey Gander, a downtown sandwich shop that is a Bethlehem institution, will reopen after a two-week hiatus timed to provide a respite before Eagles camp.

It's likely that there and elsewhere, bottom lines and spirits will be lower than in previous Julys.

"In the back of my mind I keep thinking maybe Chip Kelly will decide to come back," said Vaclavic. "I don't think it's going to happen, but you never say never. Maybe we'll have the Eagles back up here some year."


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