The flaw in Bears’ playbook? Asking Arlington Heights for subsidies. – The Denver Post

The Bears put on quite a show Sunday, upsetting a potent San Francisco 49ers team 19-10 amid a deluge that turned Soldier Field into another Great Lake. They also put on quite a polished performance last week at a very different venue — John Hersey High School in Arlington Heights.

Bears Chairman George McCaskey, team President Ted Phillips and a squad of executives and planners appeared at the school to pitch to the citizens of Arlington Heights their vision of a domed stadium and mixed-use development on the 326-acre tract that now is home to the shuttered Arlington International Racecourse. The Bears are hoping to close on the deal to purchase the parcel either late this year or in early 2023.

The pitch was heavily choreographed. Rather than allow audience members to step up to a microphone with their questions, people were asked to write their questions on cards, some or all of which were later read aloud by director of sports programming at WBBM radio and Bears radio broadcaster Jeff Joniak and answered by Bears executives. Project planners relied on glossy slides to describe what the mixed-use portion of the project would look like — a sprawling plaza with shops, offices, a hotel, apartments and town houses, a fitness center, a large pond for kayaking and canoeing and other amenities.

Everyone seemed pleased with the prospect of the Bears one day coming to town. But on the question of using taxpayer money to help fund the project, the crowd was far less enthusiastic.

“Property taxes are my main concern,” Palatine resident Justin Hegy, who attended the meeting in a Bears shirt, told the Tribune. “Our property taxes keep going up every year.”

Bears executives were braced for the tax backlash. Both McCaskey and the soon-to-retire Phillips stressed that not a cent of public funding would be used to help build the stadium. Instead, the Bears want tax dollars to help build infrastructure needed to support the mixed-use side of the project — the stores, dwellings, hotel rooms and office space. That infrastructure would include roads and sewers, along with lane additions, offramps, underpasses and walkways to handle the expected influx of traffic.

The Bears insist taxpayers would be making a sound investment. In return, the team says, the economic impact for Arlington Heights and the rest of the Chicago region would amount to as high as $1.4 billion yearly, along with the creation of nearly 10,000 permanent jobs.

“Every stadium development has had infrastructure costs that have been publicly funded — every single one,” Phillips told the crowd. “Why does that happen? Because those communities see the short- and long-term economic benefit, and the jobs that are created during construction and afterward.”

On the surface, that may seem convincing — but it’s not.

Experts who have scrutinized the use of subsidies for stadium construction and surrounding redevelopment say it’s usually the team that comes out on top, and taxpayers who end up losing out.

The Atlanta Braves relied on taxpayer help to build a new ballpark and a surrounding development that the team dubbed “The Battery” in Cobb County, Georgia. In 2013, Cobb County officials pledged $300 million in public funds to help the mixed-use side of the project get built. That investment has yet to be recouped. Instead, the project is costing taxpayers about $15 million each year, according to a report from Kennesaw State University economist J.C. Bradbury. Cobb County’s experience is hardly reassuring for taxpayers in Arlington Heights and the rest of Illinois.

Nevertheless, Bears executives remain bullish about their economic benefit projections. “There should be tremendous return for the village (of Arlington Heights), for the region and the state,” McCaskey told the audience at Hersey High School.

What taxpayers need is less of the self-serving pep talk and much more hard, independent data on cost vs. benefit.

Right now, Illinoisans have every right to remain skeptical about the side of this deal that entails public funding. The Bears are on their own 5-yard line when it comes to showing that there’s a market for the mixed-use portion of the project. The last thing Arlington Heights wants or needs is a bevy of new right-turn lanes, walkways, medians and underpasses — and a lot of empty storefronts and hotel rooms, and unoccupied apartments.

If the Bears ever plant their flag in the northwest suburbs, there’s no doubt that the people of Arlington Heights will be ecstatic. Until, of course, they get the bill.

They can avoid that pain by saying yes to the Bears, and no to subsidizing them.

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