Home Entertainment Arlington Heights not giving up on Bears stadium amid new reports

Arlington Heights not giving up on Bears stadium amid new reports

Arlington Heights not giving up on Bears stadium amid new reports

The Chicago Bears are eyeing the parking area south of Soldier Field for a new domed stadium, the team confirmed Monday. But Arlington Heights officials said team officials expressed later in the day they still have an interest in the Arlington Park site they purchased last year.
Brian Ernst/Sun-Times

The south lot outside Soldier Field could be home to a new domed stadium for the Chicago Bears, under a new proposal the NFL franchise is pitching that shifts the teams focus away from Arlington Park.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Little more than a year after purchasing the former Arlington Park racetrack as home to a new stadium, the Chicago Bears on Monday morning indicated they may not move that far from their current home on Chicago’s lakefront after all.

But by Monday evening, Arlington Heights village officials — per conversations with Bears brass — said the team is evaluating all of its options, and their interest in Arlington Park “has not changed.”

The Chicago Bears would remain on the lakefront — in a new domed stadium south of Soldier Field — under a proposal the team confirmed Monday.
Brian Ernst/Sun-Times

“The possibility that the Chicago Bears could find a different location has remained an option since Day One and this project has never been considered a ‘done deal’ in Arlington Heights,” village officials wrote in a statement. “The ultimate outcome of their current discussions with the city of Chicago is unknown.”

News reports broke early Monday that the team is eyeing the south parking lot of Soldier Field for a new publicly-owned domed stadium. The announcement caught officials at Arlington Heights village hall off guard.

“We’ve been trying to clarify what’s been going on today and I don’t know that we have 100% clarification, but we have gotten some clarification,” Mayor Tom Hayes said earlier Monday afternoon. “We are hoping that things are not as they appear.”

What would happen to Soldier Field is among the unanswered questions raised by the Chicago Bears new proposal to build a new domed stadium just to the south.
Brian Ernst/Sun-Times

The mayor isn’t ready to declare a Bears relocation to the suburbs dead.

“Arlington Heights has never been a done deal and I don’t think Chicago is a done deal,” Hayes said. “There’s a long, long way to go before the Bears decide where they’re going to build their new stadium. I don’t think anything’s been decided yet. Everything’s still on the table.”

‘Transformative opportunity’

The Bears’ new plan faces a difficult task to secure public subsidies and a likely legal challenge from the nonprofit Friends of the Parks group, which successfully fought off filmmaker George Lucas’ plans to build a museum on the lakefront site in 2016.

Meanwhile in Arlington Heights, discussions between village hall and Halas Hall over the team’s previously-announced transformation of the shuttered racetrack into a $5 billion mixed-use and entertainment district anchored by a domed stadium have stalled.

Much of the inertia stems from a protracted battle with three local school districts and Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi over property tax assessments and payments. The NFL franchise also has received a tepid reaction from Gov. J.B. Pritzker and state lawmakers over its hope for a massive property tax break to help bankroll the redevelopment of the old racetrack.

During a public presentation at John Hersey High School in September 2022, Bears Chairman George McCaskey promised that a new Arlington Heights stadium — at a price tag of at least $1 billion, experts say — would be privately financed. But, they would “need help” to pay for the rest of the project, McCaskey said.

On Monday, Bears President and CEO Kevin Warren said the NFL franchise is committed to contributing more than $2 billion in private funds to build a stadium and improve open spaces on the Museum Campus.

Could the parking area south of Soldier Field, where fans tailgate before games, be home to a new domed stadium? The Bears on Monday said they’ve turned their focus to the site and away from the 326 acres the team owns at Arlington Park.
Associated Press, File

“The future stadium of the Chicago Bears will bring a transformative opportunity to our region — boosting the economy, creating jobs, facilitating mega events and generating millions in tax revenue,” Warren said in a statement. “We look forward to sharing more information when our plans are finalized.”

How we got here

The Bears closed on their $197.2 million purchase of the 326-acre site in Arlington Heights on Feb. 15, 2023, and have since demolished the grandstand and other buildings to achieve a tax savings. Last month, the Cook County Board of Review valued the property at a $124.7 million — which is less than the $192 million value set by Kaegi, but more than the $60 million determined by the Bears’ appraiser.

The new assessment would stick the Bears with a tax bill of at least $10 million.

Officials from Northwest Suburban High School District 214, Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 and Palatine Township Elementary District 15 — who have been engaged in the property tax dispute with the Bears for nearly a year — issued a joint statement Monday.

“We understand that under new leadership and with a new Chicago mayor, the Bears must explore all options and do what is best for their organization, including the possibility of staying in Chicago, as they made clear with their latest announcement today,” the school district officials said. “We still believe that Arlington Heights remains their best option, but any proposed development must be fair for all parties involved.”

State Rep. Mark Walker, an Arlington Heights Democrat whose district is just south of the shuttered racetrack property, said he’s always been open to the team’s move to Arlington Heights, but “reaching a fair deal for all has always been the priority.”

“I trust the Bears when they say they’re exploring all options in the best interest of their company,” Walker wrote. “If they go forward with their lakefront plan, it’s our responsibility to make the best decision for Arlington Heights, Rolling Meadows, and our neighboring communities as well. I look forward to the many interesting proposals to come on the future of Arlington Park like new business development, more affordable housing, or welcoming centers for new arrivals.”

Warren, who came aboard last April, opened talks last year with Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson — who took office in May — about stadium sites in the city. It’s a dramatic shift from the chilly relationship between former team President Ted Phillips and Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

The new mayor on Monday supported the Bears’ renewed focus on the city.

The Chicago Bears say they have shifted their focus on a site for a new stadium to the parking area south of Soldier Field and away from Arlington Park.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

“I have said all along that meaningful private investment and a strong emphasis on public benefit are my requirements for public-private partnerships in our city,” Johnson said in a statement. “The Chicago Bears’ plans are a welcome step in that direction and a testament to Chicago’s economic vitality. I look forward to subsequent talks with the Bears, state leadership and community stakeholders about how we can continue to responsibly support the aspirations of the team, its fans and all residents of the city of Chicago.”

State Rep. Kam Buckner, whose district includes Soldier Field and the Museum Campus, said he’s happy to hear the Bears “are moving forward with their commitment to Chicago.”

“There’s no place like home,” Buckner wrote on social media. “I look forward to further conversations regarding this proposal and what symbiotic investment can mean for the 26th District, Chicago, Illinois and the Bears.”

Concrete outlines where the Arlington Park’s structures once stood. Despite new reports indicating the Chicago Bears are now focused elsewhere, Arlington Heights officials still believe the site could be home to the team’s next stadium.
Joe Lewnard/[email protected], February 2024

The Bears’ pivot back to the lakefront comes amid Chicago White Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf’s recent push for a new South Loop ballpark and lobbying efforts in Springfield for the public financing to make it happen. But Reinsdorf and Warren could be after the same pot of money: an extension of Illinois Sports Facilities Authority bonds, backed by the 2% Chicago hotel tax increase that helped pay for the 2002 Soldier Field renovations.

The Bears’ announcement Monday also follows a personnel shake-up at Halas Hall under Warren.

On Friday, he named Tanya Dreesen to the new role of senior vice president of strategy and global affairs and chief of staff, charged with creating organizational efficiencies in the stadium development project and day-to-day operations of the franchise. Warren worked with Dreesen in the Minnesota Vikings’ front office on the U.S. Bank Stadium project, which was completed in downtown Minneapolis in 2016.

That followed Warren’s promotion of Karen Murphy, a 25-year veteran of Halas Hall, to executive vice president of stadium development and chief operating officer. Murphy, who was the club’s chief financial officer, became the point-person on stadium matters after Warren’s Jan. 13 dismissal of Cliff Stein, the team’s general counsel who spent 22 years with the franchise.

Just days before Stein’s departure, Warren told reporters he was keeping his options open about the location of a new stadium — be it Arlington Heights or Chicago — while reserving his most positive comments for the city. He emphasized attributes of the downtown business community, lakefront, art exhibits, food and music.

“I live downtown. I love the city. I just think we’re blessed to be able to live in a city like Chicago. It has many pluses,” Warren said Jan. 10. “I’m just a big proponent of the Chicagoland area. I’m a big proponent of Arlington Heights, but there’s something that’s really special about downtown Chicago.”

‘Stunning disappointment’

Touchdown Arlington, a coalition of Arlington Heights business owners who support the Bears’ move to town and hosted Warren for a meeting at the Metropolis theater last June, called the latest announcement “a stunning disappointment,” though remain hopeful that local leaders would continue to work with the Bears.

“Residents, business owners, community groups, and municipal stakeholders (including our school districts) all stand to benefit from the possible once-in-a-generation economic opportunities an NFL stadium could bring to the Northwest suburbs,” the group said in a statement. “We fear that short-term concerns have clouded our collective judgment and that we are missing out on transformational economic development.”

“We realize there are obstacles and challenges to a possible Bears development, but we fear door number two may have just as many headaches without the economic upside,” according to the coalition statement.

Two chambers of commerce on Monday shared disparate views of where a new Bears stadium should be.

“We fully expected the Bears to consider Chicago and now it’s time for Arlington Heights to strengthen our position by bringing private business and community stakeholders to the strategy table and reestablish ourselves as the best choice for a new Bears stadium and legacy,” said Arlington Heights Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jon Ridler.

Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jack Lavin, who secured Warren as keynote speaker for the chamber’s annual meeting in June, supports the Bears’ shift back to the lakefront.

“By investing over $2 billion dollars of private money in a state-of-the-art, publicly owned stadium on the city’s Museum Campus, the Chicago Bears aren’t just showcasing their dedication to enhancing the fan experience — they’re also proving their commitment to the residents of Chicago,” Lavin said.

Friends of the Parks didn’t respond to the Bears’ latest plans Monday, but has already started to mount opposition to a new lakefront stadium.

“We stand on the shoulders of past heroes who fought to keep (the lakefront) ‘open, clear and free’ when we say to the Chicago Bears: Our lakefront parkland is for the people and not for private interests,” Fred Bates, Friends of the Parks board member and legal strategist, said in December. “We continue to advocate for it to be a greener, more accessible space, and we will not stand by and watch anyone try to use it for real estate development.”

The Bears’ current lease with the Chicago Park District for Soldier Field will expire in 2033.