With the Chicago Bears’ season mercifully ending Sunday in a 29-13 loss to Minnesota, focus turns to the prospects for building a new stadium in Arlington Heights.
The team’s abysmal 3-14 performance this season will land them a top draft position. Whether it affects their chances of getting taxpayers’ help to build their dream home is an open question.
Either way, the clock is ticking. Team officials have said they expect to decide whether to buy the former Arlington International Racecourse property in the first quarter of 2023. The Bears also have said they can’t build the project without government help. With the funding decision unlikely to come in the next couple of months, the team probably first will have to decide whether to buy the 326-acre site, then later make the call on whether to develop it.
The upcoming turning point comes just as the ante is being raised on a plan to renovate Soldier Field, the team’s current home. Last summer, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot presented a proposal to either put a dome on the stadium at an estimated cost of $2 billion, or to make it ready for a dome, or turn it into a multiuse facility.
Now, Landmark Development, which has proposed the One Central high-rise housing development next to Soldier Field, is proposing adding sweeteners to the stadium renovation plan. They would include new “immersive” fan experiences, premium club lounges, food halls, a nearby entertainment district and multimodal transportation hub.
But as they did last summer, team officials say they remain focused solely on buying Arlington Park.
“We remain on track to close on the Arlington Park property in the first quarter of 2023,” spokesman Scott Hagel said. “As we have said publicly, closing on the land does not guarantee we will develop it.”
While it may seem strange to buy the site and not build on it, owning the land would be an investment that could give the team more leverage in negotiations with the city and state, and the village of Arlington Heights.
In October, the team and the village board reached a predevelopment agreement that allows for tax increment financing, special service areas, or special assessments. Ultimately, the village board will decide whether to give any local tax breaks for the project.
Similarly, an idea was floated in Springfield to give the team a payment in lieu of tax, or PILOT deal, a tax break often used for nonprofits, which would require a change in state law.
Arlington Heights Mayor Thomas Hayes said the ball is now in the Bears’ hands.
“We have done all we can to assist them in helping them make the final decision,” Hayes said. “We’re waiting for them to complete the due diligence on their purchase agreement.”
He could not promise taxes wouldn’t be raised, but said village officials are working to make sure everyone’s concerns are addressed, including those of downtown business owners.
“The village and the Bears are very sensitive to the concerns, and want to make sure this is a win-win for everybody,” Hayes said.
Whatever the outcome, economists generally agree that sports stadiums make lousy public investments.
A University of Chicago poll of economists in 2017 found that 57% agreed that the costs to taxpayers are likely to outweigh the benefits, while only 2% disagreed. Football in particular is problematic, because teams only play at home about 10 times a year.
The Bears proposed building an enclosed stadium to house other events, including the Super Bowl, college playoffs or concerts, but such events are few and far between, said Allen Sanderson, an economics professor at the U of C.
“There’s just no way to make that pay, and somebody has to pay,” Sanderson said. “The question is, is it the taxpayers, the Bears or the NFL?”
Team officials have said they would pay for the $2 billion stadium, but would need “property tax certainty” and government help to build infrastructure such as roads and utilities for the surrounding $5 billion commercial and residential development.
But the current mood of taxpayers, residents and Bears fans suggests little support for public subsidies.
A poll by Americans for Prosperity–Illinois, a libertarian group, found that 72% of Arlington Heights responding residents supported the Bears’ proposed new stadium, but 68% opposed using tax dollars to help the team.
In October, the village board rejected a petition by the group to prohibit “corporate welfare” for the team or any other recipients.
Now, the group has narrowed its petition to prohibit subsidies for the Bears alone. It is trying to collect thousands of signatures to bypass the board and put the question on the ballot in the 2024 presidential election.
With the Bears coming off the team’s worst season in years, Brian Costin, the group’s deputy state director, said the persistent losing record raises doubts about the team’s ability to manage its affairs.
“I do think people are skeptical of the Bears’ ability to deliver a winning project,” he said, “and that’s seeping into people’s views on whether they should be given subsidies.”
Public sentiment could play a role in the Bears’ efforts to get taxpayer help.
Recent NFL history suggests that on-field success helped generate support for similar projects. Two franchises that won huge public subsidies for new stadiums, the Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans, both became Super Bowl contenders before getting their money last year.
In Chicago, support for such projects has soured. Taxpayers are still paying their $432 million plus interest of the $690 million it cost to renovate Soldier Field in 2004.
The White Sox got $150 million in taxes to help build a new stadium in 1991 — only after team owner Jerry Reinsdorf threatened to move the team to Florida.
The United Center got a property tax break, but then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel canceled that in 2016, which ended plans for an entertainment and retail complex next door.
The Cubs had to pay for a $375 million renovation of Wrigley Field themselves after city officials refused to help.
Even some Bears fans who want to see a new stadium want the team to pay for it, with a little help.
Jack Hopkins, a 23-year-old resident of Bloomington, would be much more inclined to go to games if an indoor stadium were built in Arlington Heights. The development plan, including bars, restaurants, shops, parks, a hotel and a fitness center, could make game days more fun, he said.
He recognizes that the stadium could bring in tax revenue, so he’s OK with local governments helping to fund essential infrastructure, but he doesn’t think the team should get public money to build the stadium itself.
“A multibillion-dollar organization, I would prefer that they would be able to do that themselves,” he said.
Nick Focci, 38, of Roscoe looks forward to easier parking at the possible Arlington Heights site. Soldier Field “was just never fan-friendly,” he said.
But he’s never excited about the idea of taxpayers funding stadiums, he added.
“The league and the owners should pay the bulk of it themselves especially if they also plan to build a whole world around it to profit off of,” Focci said.