Bears release Arlington Heights details, make case for public subsidy
Though the Bears will not seek public funds to build a stadium, “we look forward to partnering with the various governmental bodies to secure additional funding and assistance needed to support the feasibility of the remainder of the development,” the team wrote.
The Chicago Bears on Tuesday laid the groundwork to seek some sort of public subsidy for the massive, mixed-use stadium development they are exploring on a 326-acre site in Arlington Heights.
In an open letter released just two days before a community meeting at which conceptual plans are expected to be released, the team said it will “seek no public funding for direct stadium structure construction” on the site of the Arlington International Racecourse, but the team will seek “additional funding and assistance” for the broader, mixed-use development it called one of the largest in Illinois history.
If the Bears exercise their option to purchase the property for $197.2 million and proceed with the broader plan, it will be “one of the largest development projects in Illinois state history,” the letter states.
The “multi-purpose entertainment district” will be “anchored by a “best-in-class, enclosed stadium … worthy of hosting global events” such as the Super Bowl, college football playoffs and the NCAA’s Final Four basketball championships.
“Make no mistake. This is much more than a stadium project. Any development of Arlington Park will propose to include a multi-purpose entertainment, commercial/retail and housing district that will provide considerable economic benefits to Cook County, the surrounding region and the state of Illinois,” the letter states.
“The long-term vision for the entire project is an ongoing work in progress, but could include: restaurants, office space, hotel, fitness center, new parks and open spaces and other improvements for the community to enjoy.”
In an apparent attempt to justify public help for the broader development amid local resistance, the Bears rolled out a series of tantalizing numbers to describe the potential economic impact of the project.
The numbers include: a $9.4 billion impact for “Chicagoland”; $3.9 billion in overall “labor income” at $601 million a year; 48,000 jobs, 9,750 of them “long-term” positions; $16 million in annual tax revenue, in addition to property taxes for Arlington Heights.
The project will also generate $51.3 million in tax revenue for the state of Illinois and $9.8 million for Cook County, according to the economic impact study done for the Bears.
University of Chicago economics Prof. Allen Sanderson, who has long researched sports stadiums, urged observers to take those rosy projections with a grain of salt.
“Whenever anyone is offering up an economic impact number, a good rule of thumb is to move the decimal one place to the left,” Sanderson said, noting he hasn’t seen the team’s research. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the Bears, or a local chamber of commerce, or a mayor — 90% of that is hyperbole or just inflated.
“It’s especially true in the NFL, because money affiliated with the team is local in nature. People will be watching the Bears whether they’re in Soldier Field or Arlington Heights. Money gets redistributed, but the net addition is usually minimal,” Sanderson said.
And the sizable “mixed-use” development the Bears are pitching on the rest of the 326-acre plot probably won’t create the massive economic windfall the team has suggested, said Sanderson.
He added that the team’s implication that they’re not seeking public financing for the stadium project “made me scratch my head.”
“Essentially they’re saying, ‘We’re not going to ask for public money for the stadium, but we are going to ask for other money to build next to it.’ In the end, somebody is going to have to fork over something like $2 billion to build this facility. I don’t care what euphemism is used, but it’s $2 billion.”
In its open letter, the team wrote: “While the Bears will seek no public funding for direct stadium structure construction, given the broad, long-term public benefits of this project, we look forward to partnering with the various governmental bodies to secure additional funding and assistance needed to support the feasibility of the remainder of the development.”
The letter goes on to state the Bears “remain committed to Soldier Field and will honor the terms of its lease” even if a departure earlier than the 2033 expiration date of the lease requires a cash buyout.
“While the prospect of a transit-oriented, mixed-use and entertainment district anchored by a new enclosed stadium is exciting for the Bears and the entire state, there is much more to be done before we can close on the property,” the letter states.
“We remain under contract to purchase the property, but there are conditions that must be met in order to be in a position to close. If we do close on the property, it does not guarantee we will develop it. While under contract with the seller of Arlington Park, we will not be discussing or exploring any other alternative stadium sites or opportunities, including renovations of Soldier Field.”
The letter was accompanied by a map and two conceptual drawings showing an aerial view of the broader development.
Soldier Field, where the Bears have played for more than 50 years, is owned by the Chicago Park District. It was last renovated in 2003 — a $660 million project bankrolled by bonds that won’t be fully repaid until 2032. That makeover left the stadium with a capacity of 61,500, now the smallest in the NFL.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot has offered a Hail Mary $2.2 billion plan to put a dome on Soldier Field in a desperate attempt to keep the Bears in Chicago or at least look like she tried her best to keep them if they leave.
Lightfoot said Thursday’s community meeting does nothing to change the dynamic of her efforts to keep the Bears at Soldier Field.
“As I said months ago, we were gonna make a very compelling case for them to stay in the city of Chicago, and I think that we’ve done that,” she said at a Tuesday morning news conference.
“We’re gonna continue our discussions [with the Bears]. We’re gonna continue our discussions with the league. As you know, I’m somebody who likes to plan. So, we’ve got Plan B, Plan C and others in the works as well, if the Bears decide they’re gonna abandon the city of Chicago. I hope they don’t. We’re gonna keep fighting that fight as long as we possibly can.”
Contributing: Mitchell Armentrout