Mayor should put a lid on billion-dollar Soldier Field dome plans

With so many far more pressing issues around town and in the parks that are in need of public funding, taxpayers shouldn’t be made responsible for a billion-dollar stadium renovation.

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A rendering of the inside of a domed Soldier Field, released on Monday, July 25, 2022.

A rendering of the inside of a domed Soldier Field, released on Monday, July 25.

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The trio of Soldier Field renovation plans released by the mayor’s office this week — particularly the most-expensive version calling for a dome over the stadium — might well have the words “potential boondoggle” stamped around the margins.

How else to explain Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s wish to burn up between $900 million to $2.2 billion to expand the stadium to either retain a football team that has clearly moved on, or to lure events that have expressed no real interest in being here?

And who’ll pay for this thing? The mayor refused to say, which says to us, taxpayers — who are still on the hook for $400 million in debt from the 2003 Soldier Field rehab — beware.

“We will make a very compelling case that any investment made of precious tax dollars will have a substantial return on that investment that makes sense for the taxpayers,” Lightfoot said Monday.

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There’s no doubt that it’s time to rethink Soldier Field. But with so many far more pressing issues around town and in the parks that are in need of public funding, taxpayers shouldn’t be made responsible for carrying a billion-dollar stadium renovation.

Dome ‘prohibitively expensive’

The dome was among three options Lightfoot presented at a Monday news conference at Soldier Field.

Other proposals included putting in the structure to add a dome later, or making renovations to better accommodate professional soccer, college football games and other events.

Admittedly, some version of the third option might make some sense. As it stands now, it’s still a staggering $900 million.

But the mayor’s claims in Monday’s announcement that a revamped Soldier Field could lure big-ticket events like the Super Bowl and the NCAA Final Four seemed more like wishful thinking than an actual plan.

That no one from the NFL or the college basketball association attended the news conference to speak up for the mayor’s effort makes us uneasy.

“We have not seen any plan that would keep that burden off the taxpayers,” said Friends of the Parks Executive Director Juanita Irizarry, who was part of the mayor’s 23-member working group tasked with rethinking the park district-owned Soldier Field and the Museum Campus — but was left out of the final round of discussions on Soldier Field’s future.

“Friends of the Parks does not agree that there should be a dome on Soldier Field,” Irizarry said.

She called the move “prohibitively expensive,” and makes a strong point by saying the money should be devoted to “rebuilding or fixing crumbling field houses and other park infrastructure around the city.”

Stadium, not a cash register

For all its expense and aesthetic issues, the 2003 Soldier Field redo did have at least one benefit: It kept the decaying 1924 stadium from crumbling away.

But judging from the latest renderings, the proposed renovations seem wrongly intent on turning the old soldier by the lake into a money maker. The mayor on Monday said as much herself.

“Whether the Bears stay, and I hope they do, but even if they don’t, we’re going to generate a massive amount of revenue and financial impact for our city,” Lightfoot said. 

As the park district’s biggest asset, it’s only right that Soldier Field pay its own freight and contribute significantly to the agency’s coffers.

But the notion that it can be retrofitted to operate as a massive cash register sounds to us like a reason to justify a large public ask down the road: “Don’t worry, folks. We’ll make it all back”.

That’s always the promise — the carrot dangled — when it comes to justifying funding for big public projects in this city.

And yet it never quite happens. The taxpayers rarely get the relief. Only the bill.

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