Maybe the reason the Chicago Bears are struggling to find a new home for their stadium is because the professional football team is waiting to see what Northwest Indiana has to offer.

If that's the case, state Rep. Earl Harris Jr., D-East Chicago, wants to give Bears ownership something to consider as they cast about for alternatives to continuing to play home games at Chicago's Soldier Field.

Harris recently filed legislation at the Indiana House to establish a 19-member Northwest Indiana Professional Sports Development Commission tasked with studying the possibility of attracting a professional sports team to the Region, along with developing a master plan for doing so.

"Not all National Football League teams play in their namesake cities. Some, like the New York Giants and Jets, not even in the same state," Harris said. "With the Chicago Bears looking into options for a new location, this legislation will help make Northwest Indiana a more attractive option for them and other sports teams."

House Bill 1174 does not provide funding or any other means to construct an NFL-quality stadium in Northwest Indiana. A separate measure, likely requiring substantial state investment — similar to the 2005 Indianapolis Colts stadium law — would be needed to take that step.

However, Harris believes it's worth starting the conversation given the billions of dollars in public- and private-sector investment taking place in Lake, Porter, LaPorte and St. Joseph counties.
"In recent years, Northwest Indiana has seen significant infrastructure growth as a result of our work here in the state legislature," Harris said. "From the Gary/Chicago International Airport to the Gary Hard Rock Casino, and the forthcoming convention center, Northwest Indiana is quickly becoming a hub for entertainment and leisure."

"Sports infrastructure is the obvious next step in attracting more people — and possible sports teams — to our Region."

The legislation is not specific to the Chicago Bears, which looked at relocating to a lakefront site in Gary in the mid-1990s when Chicago officials initially balked at renovating Soldier Field. That deal fell apart when the Lake County Council refused to consider a county income tax to support the "Planet Park" development.

Instead, the commission's charge would include evaluating the possibility of Northwest Indiana attracting a NBA basketball team, NHL hockey team, Major League Soccer team, or a Major League Baseball team, such as the Chicago White Sox.

Harris said beyond the potential economic benefits tied to professional sports, his decision to file the measure partly is personal, since it also was one of the final proposals crafted by his father, state Rep. Earl Harris Sr., D-East Chicago, prior to dying in office in 2015.

"I'm honored to be continuing the work that my father, Earl Harris, started when he represented District 2 in the Statehouse," Harris said. "This bill furthers my goal to make our community and Northwest Indiana as a whole a center point for business. This will, in turn, enhance the quality of life for all residents."

"As a lawmaker, making life better for my constituents is my top priority, and I truly believe creating the infrastructure for a professional sports development commission would bring in economic benefits to our communities and our people for decades to come."

The legislation is awaiting action by the House Ways and Means Committee.
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