Mayor Lightfoot should make her case to the Bears — but keep taxpayers’ money out of it

Chicagoans should not be put on the hook to keep a $4 billion sports franchise from skipping town.

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Exterior view of Soldier Field.

Sun-Times photo

When the Chicago Bears started making noise last year about abandoning Soldier Field, Mayor Lori Lightfoot publicly told the team to instead focus on “beating the Packers finally, and being relevant past October.”

It was blunt, but solid advice. And it seemed to carry a fitting underlying message: Don’t ask the city to pay for expensive improvements aimed at keeping the Bears at Soldier Field.

But late last week, Lightfoot told radio station 670 The Score that her administration will “continue to do everything we can to keep the Bears in Chicago, and [we’re] working on some plans to present to them that I think will make a very, very compelling financial case as to why it makes abundant sense for them to stay in Chicago.”

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Of course, the mayor should make the case. As long as she doesn’t lighten taxpayers’ wallets, or increase municipal debt, to do it.

Chicagoans should not be put on the hook — again — to fancy up a stadium so a sports franchise worth $4 billion won’t skip town.

‘Anything is possible for money’

Lightfoot has said she’s not in favor of “spending a ton of dough on a brand-new municipal stadium,” which is good to hear.

But last week, she told sports radio station WMVP-AM she could explore the option of putting a roof on Soldier Field, which could be a frightfully expensive proposition — if doable at all — given the radically asymmetrical seating bowl that was added in the 2003 renovation.

Chicago architect Dirk Lohan, who was in charge of the 2003 redesign along with architecture firm Wood + Zapata, told Sun-Times City Hall reporter Fran Spielman last year Soldier Field is “not laid out to receive a roof.”

“It’s already a mixture of two buildings,” Lohan said. “The old classical building with colonnades. And then, we have a modern seating shell surrounding the playing field. If you put a roof on it, you would have three different structures.”

But “anything is possible for money,” he said.

That sounds very, very costly.

Besides, the Bears blew their chance for a Soldier Field roof — built on the public’s dime — when then-Bears President Michael McCaskey passed on an earlier proposed renovation by the Chicago office of architecture firm SOM.

“We presented a plan to preserve the architecture of Soldier Field and cover the seating and the field with a movable roof,” architect Adrian Smith, now of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture.

“It could be covered when games were played in bad weather … and let sun in during times when they were growing grass. The whole issue was grass. That’s why they wanted an open field. That was a requirement of McCaskey,” he told Spielman. “But McCaskey never really grabbed onto it.” McCaskey died in 2020.

Still paying for 2003 improvements
Certainly the mayor’s office could feel pressured to do something big to keep the Bears on the lakefront.

The team itself turned up the flames a bit last September when it announced the signing of an agreement to buy the former Arlington International Racecourse. If the Bears close on the purchase, the team could build its own, larger stadium — and any other facilities it wanted — on the Arlington Heights site and leave Soldier Field behind.

Still, that’s no reason to go overboard to keep the team there — especially since taxpayers are still on the hook for $420 million in bond payments on the 2003 Soldier Field remodeling.

However, the mayor did say there were other things the city could do to improve the stadium, but she gave no details. She also mentioned the administration could offer a portion of Chicago’s 10,000 vacant lots as a stadium site.

Also intriguing was the mayor's comment that she’d be amenable to a private investor stepping in to fund improvements. But that choice could have its own set of civic issues, if the investor seeks naming rights for the stadium or the playing field.

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“I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves,” Lightfoot told the sports radio audience. “But you know, we’ve got thoughts and plans. And they will become public at some point. And then the Bears have a decision to make.”

Clock runs out for publicly funded stadiums

Time was, states and municipalities shelled out hundred of millions of dollars to build and improve stadiums for professional sports franchises.

But that time is passing. The most expensive stadium in the world, the new $5.5 billion SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California — the venue where the Super Bowl was played just a few days ago — was built by Los Angeles Rams owner Stan Kroenke using private funding.

Lightfoot — and the residents of Arlington Heights, too, for that matter — should keep that in mind when negotiating with the Bears.

Given Soldier Field’s age, and that it’s also used for concerts and other events, a little nip-and-tuck overall might be necessary and proper.

But nothing more.

Enough is enough.

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