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Bears submit bid for land in Arlington Heights as potential new stadium site

The team’s bid signals it’s legitimately considering leaving Soldier Field, home of the Bears since 1971.

The Bears have played at Soldier Field since 1971.
The Bears have played at Soldier Field since 1971.
Robert A. Davis

The possibility of the Bears leaving Soldier Field for a new stadium in Arlington Heights took a significantly more realistic turn once the franchise put in a bid to buy the Arlington International Racecourse property.

The potential relocation had been little more than speculation until team president Ted Phillips announced the bid Thursday. Phillips couched it as the Bears exploring “every possible option” and allows them to “further evaluate the property and its potential” if their bid is accepted, and that means relocating is legitimately under consideration.

But there have been numerous relocation ploys over the years by the Bears to gain leverage with the City of Chicago in negotiations over Soldier Field. Arlington Heights was a possibility in the 1970s, when former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley threatened to prevent the team from using Chicago in its name and mused about the lack of interest there would be in “the Arlington Heights Bears.”

Chairman George McCaskey, whose family has owned the team since its inception in 1920, declined comment through a spokesman.

Overall, the Bears want more control over their home stadium, which isn’t actually theirs. The Chicago Park District owns Soldier Field, so the team is limited in what it can do as far as expanding the capacity beyond its current 62,000, modernizing aspects of a 97-year-old building, selling sponsorships for certain areas of the stadium and building a year-round museum and gift shop.

There would be nothing holding them back in Arlington Heights, where Mayor Thomas Hayes has been openly campaigning to lure them. He called a potential Bears move a “best-case scenario” for his village Thursday.

“I’m very excited about the opportunity, but it’s certainly not a done deal,” Hayes said. “There’s a long way to go.”

Hayes said he had met with fewer than 10 potential bidders for the site. Churchill Downs, Inc. owns the property and said it plans to give an update on the sale “in the coming weeks.” A spokesperson declined comment on the Bears’ bid.

On the other end of this tug-of-war, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot sharpened her tone from last month, when she said that she wanted to help the Bears maximize what they’re getting out of Soldier Field, and came out with a blistering statement Thursday, saying the Bears “are locked into a lease” and pointing out that “many organizations are doubling down on their commitment to Chicago,” while the Bears flirt with the suburbs.

“This is clearly a negotiation tactic that the Bears have used before,” Lightfoot said. “As a season-ticket holder and longtime Bears fan, I am committed to keeping the ‘Chicago’ name in our football team.”

Then she took the cruelest swipe of all.

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

That noise probably won’t quiet anytime soon.

The racetrack property covers 326 acres about six miles north of the Northwest Tollway.

That’s far more space than the Bears have at Soldier Field, it’s an advantageous location based on internal research that shows the majority of their fan base is in the north and northwest suburbs and it’s about half the trek from Halas Hall in Lake Forest.

The Arlington Heights property would be exclusively for a stadium. The team poured more than $100 million into renovating Halas Hall in 2019 and will hold training camp there for the foreseeable future.

Arlington International Racecourse, pictured in August 2012.
Arlington International Racecourse, pictured in August 2012.
Sun-Times file

The Bears have played at Soldier Field since 1971 and have a lease running through 2033. The organization doesn’t consider that lease to be a barrier, a source said, because it could negotiate a buyout, and construction on a new facility would take years anyway.

Recently built NFL stadiums have been extravagant in design and enormous in price. The newly opened stadiums in Los Angeles and Las Vegas cost $5 billion-$6 billion and $1.9 billion, respectively. The others in the last seven years were for the Falcons ($1.6 billion), Vikings ($1.1 billion) and 49ers ($1.3 billion).

In terms of price and aesthetics, the Bears are likely to give U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis a long look as they imagine their new home. It has a 73,000-person capacity, a glass roof and glass on much of the stadium walls to allow as much daylight as possible.

That stadium opened in 2016 and has already hosted a Super Bowl, a Final Four and various other major concerts and events. Building that kind of venue would give the Bears similar opportunities that simply wouldn’t work at Soldier Field.

Contributing: Mitchell Armentrout