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Pritzker punts on funding new Bears stadium as lawmakers line up to block financing run to Arlington Heights

Gov. J.B. Pritzker said the possibility of publicly financing a new stadium is “not something that we’re looking at” — but he didn’t rule it out.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks inside Mi Tierra En La Villita restaurant in Little Village on Thursday.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks inside Mi Tierra En La Villita restaurant in Little Village on Thursday.
Mark Capapas/Sun-Times

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Thursday said he’d be disappointed if the Bears leave Soldier Field in favor of a new stadium in Arlington Heights, but the Chicago Democrat was noncommittal about the prospect of publicly financing a billion-dollar project — something a group of state lawmakers are lining up to block.

“I’m a Bears fan, and I know that it would be disappointing for me if the Chicago Bears moved outside of the city of Chicago,” Pritzker said at an unrelated news conference in Little Village. “I think that the Bears and the city of Chicago need to work out their differences in order for us to end up with the Bears staying in the city.”

“There’s something about having them in the city. ... There’s a tradition I think that we all feel, many of us, about the city of Chicago. Having said that, this is a private enterprise engaging with city governments to decide what’s best for them,” he said.

The team announced Wednesday it reached a $197 million deal to buy 326 acres previously home to Arlington International Racecourse, which likely ran its final races last weekend. Mayor Lori Lightfoot sounded resigned to the idea of the team skipping town but has urged the team to return to the negotiating table to keep them on the lakefront.

As for whether he’d support using public money to sweeten the pot for the Bears — either for a new stadium or for more upgrades at Soldier Field — the governor said “that’s not something that we’re looking at,” but he didn’t rule it out.

“It’s very important for us to focus on our fiscal situation in the state, making sure that we’re building up the infrastructure of the state and that we’re balancing our budget,” he said.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks during a news conference Thursday at a restaurant in Little Village.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks during a news conference Thursday at a restaurant in Little Village.
Mark Capapas/Sun-Times

But state Sen. Robert Peters, a Hyde Park Democrat whose district includes Soldier Field, took a hardline stance against the potential move. He filed legislation dubbed the “Monsters of the Midway Act” that seeks to prohibit the Bears from moving without an agreement with the city.

Peters noted taxpayers will have shelled out $660 million by the time the total debt from Soldier Field’s oft-ridiculed renovation is paid off a decade from now.

“If the owners want to move the team, that’s fine, but they owe a debt to the city and its taxpayers who have been paying for their stadium,” Peters said in a statement.

Other lawmakers are calling for a timeout before throwing public dollars at the team. A House resolution sponsored by state Reps. Mike Zalewski, D-Riverside, Kam Buckner, D-Chicago, and Margaret Croke, D-Chicago, would urge the General Assembly to “take all necessary steps to ensure that no state or local taxpayer money is used in the construction of new professional sport stadiums.”

That measure would offer legislators a chance to “step back, catch our breath and say we want to be involved in this process,” Zalewski said.

There was a “serious social and public commitment to the Bears and to Soldier Field and the city of Chicago in the early 2000s, and it was done with a lot of public funding,” Zalewski said.

State Rep. Michael J. Zalewski, D-Riverside, pictured in March 2020.
State Rep. Michael J. Zalewski, D-Riverside, pictured in March 2020.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

“The indications are that if this were to go forward and the Bears were to relocate to Arlington Heights, it would be a private transaction, but that’s a big assumption,” Zalewski said.

“There’s not just the stadium, there’s transportation costs — the only way to get in and out of Arlington Heights is Route 53, that’s 85,000 people moving in and out of the northwest suburb on a weekly basis, not to mention if there’s a Final Four or a Super Bowl. ... The sense of the chamber resolution’s to just ask everyone to take the temperature on how they feel as an initial starting point.”

Zalewski said he didn’t think the resolution would get total agreement in the chamber, and other legislators, such as state Rep. Jonathan Carroll, D-Northbrook, could have different ideas.

Carroll, whose district currently includes part of Arlington Heights, said he hasn’t been asked to support the measure and isn’t sure he would.

Arlington International Racecourse, pictured earlier this week, is in line to be purchased by the Chicago Bears.
Arlington International Racecourse, pictured earlier this week, is in line to be purchased by the Chicago Bears.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

“The Chicago Bears haven’t asked us for anything yet, and, as a matter of fact, they put out $197 million of their own money to buy the site,” Carroll said. “I understand why some of the reps that are on that resolution are, because nobody wants to be the person that lost the Bears. I think everybody wants to do everything in their power to certainly keep them, but at the same time, until there’s pen to paper, it’s kind of hard to know where we’re going with this.”

Pritzker said he hasn’t been approached by the Bears nor by officials from Chicago or Arlington Heights, who he said “are going to have to make their own decisions” about potentially subsidizing upgrades for the team.

Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes declined to comment on whether the Bears have made any specific asks or if he’d be open to them.