Stalled Bears stadium talks create opening for Chicago mayor — if he’s willing to rewrite his playbook

Brandon Johnson’s promise to make $1 billion worth of “investments in people,” makes it tough to imagine him moving a new Chicago Bears stadium to the top of his “to do” list.

SHARE Stalled Bears stadium talks create opening for Chicago mayor — if he’s willing to rewrite his playbook
The colonnades of old Soldier Field, reflected in the glass exterior of the then-newly renovated stadium in 2003.

The historic colonnades of old Soldier Field are reflected in the glass exterior of the then-newly renovated stadium in 2003. Nearly 20 years later, the Chicago Bears have bought land in the suburbs, hoping to build a new stadium there.

Associated Press

The Bears’ stalled stadium touchdown drive in Arlington Heights has cracked the door open for Mayor Brandon Johnson to keep the team in Chicago — but only if he’s willing to spend the enormous political capital it would take to move the team to the front of a long line.

Johnson is under intense pressure to deliver on his campaign promise to make $1 billion worth of “investments in people.” The smorgasbord of jobs, education, mental health and social programs is the cornerstone of the new mayor’s anti-violence strategy.

The migrant crisis has turned up the heat on Johnson even further, as evidenced by the protesters who shouted at Johnson during last week’s City Council meeting.

Analysis bug

Analysis

Against that “what about us?” backdrop, it would be tough to imagine Johnson moving a new stadium for the Bears to the top of his “to do” list — before reparations for descendants of slaves, creating a dedicated funding source to reduce homelessness or reopening Chicago’s mental health clinics.

That’s even if Johnson could find a Chicago site big enough to build the stadium-anchored, mixed-use complex needed to secure the Bears’ long-term future.

But State Rep. Kam Buckner, D-Chicago, a former mayoral challenger whose district includes Soldier Field, said his former opponent must be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.

“Public safety, pensions. You’ve got to triage. All of these things are important. But this is not something that’s unimportant,” said Buckner, who played defense on the football team at the University of Illinois.

“The Bears would have to be clear about what they want. Do they just want space for a stadium? There are places around Chicago where that can probably happen. Or do they want space for an entire campus? Do they want restaurants and retail and hotels? None of this can happen until they actually sit down and have discussions, which I don’t believe the last mayor was interested in doing,” Buckner said.

Mayor, Bears officials could meet soon

Bears spokesman Scott Hagel refused to comment amid word that an introductory meeting between Johnson, Bears CEO George McCaskey and team president Kevin Warren could take place within days.

A rendering released by the Chicago Bears on Tuesday shows the view from the site of a proposed stadium, looking southeast at a proposed mixed-use development on the former location of Arlington International Racecourse.

A rendering released by the Chicago Bears shows how the team envisioned developing the former site of Arlington International Racecourse. This is the view from the site of the proposed stadium, looking southeast at a proposed mixed-use development.

Courtesy of Chicago Bears

Last week, the Bears declared building a stadium at the old Arlington International Racecourse was no longer the team’s “singular focus” — even after purchasing the site for $197 million.

Team officials then met with the mayor of Naperville, who pitched a stadium in that western suburb.

Hagel said then the Arlington Heights stadium was “at risk,” citing the property’s tax assessment and a recent settlement with Churchill Downs, which they believe “fails to reflect the property is not operational and not commercially viable in its current state.”

“We will continue the ongoing demolition activity and work toward a path forward in Arlington Heights, but it is no longer our singular focus,” Hagel said in a statement.

Jason Lee, a senior adviser to Johnson, said the mayor looks forward to meeting with the Bears and plans to “start by listening.”

“We don’t know exactly what their interest is. We don’t know what the status of some of these other projects are from their perspective. We don’t know what they’re willing to even consider,” Lee said.

“What the mayor has said from the beginning is that he is definitely willing to have a conversation and talk about potential options for keeping the Bears in Chicago. If the Bears are interested — and I don’t know that they are — I’m sure they have things to say” about where a Chicago stadium could be built.

Arlington International Racecourse in 2021.

Arlington International Racecourse in 2021.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

Bears ‘part of the fabric’ of the city

How important is it to Johnson to avoid having the Bears leave Chicago on his watch?

“It’s important to have a dialogue, to make an effort to talk to one of the critical civic institutions in the city of Chicago. …. Conversations, dialogue, relationships had broken down under the previous administration,” Lee said, calling the Bears “part of the fabric” of Chicago.

On the day the Bears took out the option to purchase the Arlington Heights site, Mayor Lori Lightfoot called it a “negotiation tactic,” noting the Bears were “locked into a lease” at Soldier Field.

“We want the organization to focus on putting a winning team on the field, beating the Packers and finally being relevant past October. Everything else is noise,” she said then.

Ultimately, Lightfoot offered to put a dome over a renovated, and somewhat enlarged Soldier Field, at a potential cost of $2.2 billion.

Una representación muestra un Soldier Field renovado con un domo añadido.

Last July, the city unveiled renderings of a renovated Soldier Field with a dome added, arguing the Bears could be perfectly happy in an upgraded stadium. Others say only a new facility would keep the team from moving to the suburbs.

Landmark Development

Chicagoan Marc Ganis, who has advised numerous NFL teams on stadium financing, promptly dismissed Lightfoot’s plan as “trying to put lipstick on a pig.” Even a renovated facility would be “a small, difficult-to-get-to, publicly owned and operated stadium that is not even close to being sufficient to host an NFL team in the third-largest market in the country,” he said.

Although the Arlington Heights deal is “far from dead,” Ganis said he believes “overreaching by politicians” in the northwest suburbs has created an “opportunity” for Johnson, if he chooses to seize it.

“First, he’s got to decide if it’s a political priority for him,” Ganis said. If he does, he has to pick a site other than Soldier Field.

Current stadium ‘economically obsolete’

“Soldier Field is economically obsolete, and frankly, was before the concrete dried” on the 2003 renovation, “It would have to be a new stadium that the Bears control. And frankly, the Bears will pay the lion’s share of it,” Ganis said.

“The second step is: Is he willing to assist in the development of the stadium? He could also say, ‘I can’t do this now. ... Let’s have a good relationship for whatever the remaining years are in your lease at Soldier Field.’ And that could be it. Or, he could say: ‘What do you need from me to help you develop a stadium and spend billions of dollars within the city limits?’”

Johnson campaigned on a promise to raise $800 million in revenue through new or increased taxes, but he also needs to avoid “losing existing revenue,” Ganis said.

“There is an opportunity for a big political victory. And political victories — wherever they come from — assist a newly elected leader [who] most people don’t know very much about.”

The beginning of the Soldier Field renovation in 2002, with the removal of seats.

A major renovation to Soldier Field began after the 2002 season. The Bears’ lease on the spiffed-up stadium runs through 2033, but many observers doubt additional renovations would be enough to keep the football team at the facility, which turns 100 years old next year.

Sun-Times file

Keeping the Bears could show that Johnson “understands that economic development is a necessary prerequisite to having the funds to pay for the social programs,” Ganis said.

Wherever the Bears end up, they will need “property tax certainty” to move forward with a project costing $2.5 billion for the stadium alone.

That, too, would be difficult for Johnson to deliver after promising to tax the rich, make wealthy corporations pay their fair share and avoid raising property taxes.

In addition, there are precious few city sites large enough to handle the massive development the Bears envision.

Suitable city sites few, far between

The South Loop site known as the 78 is bisected by an active railroad track, and the University of Illinois is building an academic and research hub there.

The contaminated South Works site that formerly housed U.S. Steel has bedeviled every developer who has ever tackled it.

That leaves the old Silver Shovel dump site at Roosevelt and Kostner, the old Finkl Steel site in the middle of Lincoln Park and McCormick Place East, which would violate the lakefront protection ordinance.

McCormick Place’s Lakeside Center is the oldest part of the convention center

McCormick Place’s Lakeside Center is the oldest part of the convention center, and has been mentioned in the past as a potential site for a new stadium to replace Soldier Field, just to the north. But construction there would violate the city’s lakefront protection ordinance.

Sun-Times file

Veteran political strategist Peter Giangreco said Johnson would be better off letting the Bears go than he would be putting bread and circuses ahead of meat and potatoes at a time when hundreds of millions in bonds issued to renovate Soldier Field still must be repaid.

The passionate debate over $51 million in surplus funding for the migrant crisis demonstrated that competition for scarce city resources “is gonna be fierce, as it should be. There’s a lot of people left behind,” Giangreco said.

That competition will only intensify when federal stimulus funds now propping up budgets at the city, the CTA and Chicago Public Schools dry up.

“I don’t know anybody who thinks keeping the Bears is a priority right now,” Giangreco said.

“Most people would say Lori Lightfoot lost the Bears. Not Brandon Johnson. It’s not his problem to fix. … There’s just no reason to spend the political capital because it’s not his mess. This is his predecessor’s mess. She owns it. He doesn’t need to slip that jacket on. If he does, then he wears it.”

Aerial view of U.S. Steel’s former old South Works site, one of the locations bandied about as a potential site for a new Chicago Bears stadium.

Aerial view of U.S. Steel’s former old South Works site, one of the locations bandied about as a potential site for a new Chicago Bears stadium.

Sun-Times Media

The Latest
McClain, a longtime confidant of Madigan, is set to go on trial with him Oct. 8 on racketeering, bribery, fraud and attempted extortion charges, but his lawyers argue that Madigan’s apparent defense strategy involved blaming McClain.
The fundraiser will be at the home of a family friend on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. The campaign has at least 10 other fundraising events over the last 10 days of July.
The boy was in an alley about 3 p.m. Friday when someone approached him and opened fire, police said.