POLL: Bear down at Soldier Field, Chicagoans tell team — but don’t ask us to bear the cost

More than half of the 625 Chicagoans who took part in the telephone survey said they don’t want to see the team ditch its iconic lakefront colonnades for a new stadium in Arlington Heights.

SHARE POLL: Bear down at Soldier Field, Chicagoans tell team — but don’t ask us to bear the cost
Fans cheer as fireworks go off during The Star-Spangled Banner at Soldier Field before the Chicago Bears take on the Washington Commanders, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022. More than half of Chicagoans want the Bears to stay at Soldier Field instead of moving to Arlington Heights, a new poll found — but roughly the same percentage say they don’t want their tax dollars used to upgrade the lakefront stadium.

More than half of Chicagoans want the Bears to stay at Soldier Field instead of moving to Arlington Heights, a new poll found — but roughly the same percentage say they don’t want their tax dollars used to upgrade the lakefront stadium.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file photo

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We want you to stay, but we’d rather not pay. 

That’s the message from most city voters to the Chicago Bears as the team considers leaving Soldier Field for greener pastures in the northwest suburbs, according to a Chicago Sun-Times/WBEZ/Telemundo Chicago/NBC5 Poll.

More than half of the 625 Chicagoans who took part in the telephone survey said they don’t want to see the team ditch its iconic lakefront colonnades in favor of a new stadium in Arlington Heights. 

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Just about as many said they don’t want their tax dollars to fund a dome over Soldier Field in order to persuade the McCaskey family to stay put, though. That’s the Hail Mary pass that Mayor Lori Lightfoot has thrown to keep the Monsters of the Midway within city limits.

Not that the Bears are asking for that. As they finalize their $197 million purchase of the shuttered Arlington International Racecourse from Churchill Downs Inc. — a deal that’s expected to close by this spring — team brass have said they’re focused solely on a suburban sprawl. 

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Only 23% of poll respondents said they want that to happen, compared to 52% who want the team to bear down along Du Sable Lake Shore Drive. The remaining quarter were undecided, the poll found. 

Respondents were more evenly split on the question of public funding for another Soldier Field renovation, but still leaned against the prospect of turning it into “a domed year-round commercial and entertainment center if it would keep the Bears from leaving Chicago.” 

About 42% supported using taxpayer money to accomplish that, compared to 51% opposed and 7% undecided. 

The poll of likely voters in the municipal election — conducted Jan. 31 through Feb. 3 by Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy, Inc. — has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. 

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Pollster Brad Coker said it’s a pattern he’s regularly seen in cities grappling with the controversial possibility of subsidizing stadiums for billion-dollar sports franchises. 

“The city voters want to keep the team, without a doubt, but they’re not crazy about going into their own pockets to keep the owners happy,” Coker said.

That’s the sentiment of West Loop financial analyst Ryan Hogan, a poll respondent and casual Bears fan who has already felt the sting of betrayal from an NFL team skipping town. He grew up in St. Louis, a fan of the Rams — who defected for Los Angeles in 2016. 

While an in-region move for the Bears wouldn’t come close to that level of fan abandonment, Hogan said it would yank away “part of the thread that goes through the city.”

“The team wouldn’t feel as ingrained in the city,” he said. “You’d lose that sense of identity.”

But it’s not worth sinking millions of taxpayer dollars into further stadium upgrades to woo the Bears, Hogan said — especially when the city is still on the hook for more than $630 million over the next decade to pay off Soldier Field’s often ridiculed 2003 renovation. 

Soldier Field is shown in 2004. A federal parks panel recommended stripping its landmark status, agreeing that the renovation destroyed the historic character of the stadium. 

Soldier Field is shown in 2004. A federal parks panel recommended stripping its landmark status, agreeing that the renovation destroyed the historic character of the stadium.

Nam Y. Huh/AP-file

“You dump a ton of public money into this stuff, and then they threaten you with moving again,” Hogan said.

Even poll respondents who were OK with funding Soldier Field upgrades said they’d cut the budget far below the estimated $2.2 billion overhaul suggested by Lightfoot, who’s up for re-election Feb. 28.

The Bears and Soldier Field “belong together,” Andersonville software developer Elton Glaser said, but he’s “dubious about pouring tons of money into it.”

“It’s fine for the city to chip in, but we shouldn’t be funding a whole renovation,” Glaser said. 

Most of Lightfoot’s eight challengers — U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, Ald. Sophia King (4th) and community activist Ja’Mal Green — have said they’d lobby to keep the Bears in Chicago, but haven’t said how much money they’d put into Soldier Field upgrades.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot announces three options for the future of Soldier Field in July in a bid to retain the Chicago Bears in Chicago at Soldier Field.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot announces three options for the future of Soldier Field in July in a bid to retain the Chicago Bears in Chicago at Soldier Field.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

Three other mayoral hopefuls — state Rep. Kam Buckner, Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) and former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas have said the team’s move is inevitable, while businessman Willie Wilson has said he’d try to “bring another team here.” 

Joann Butkus — whose family still isn’t sure if there’s any relation to the Bears’ legendary linebacker with the same last name — told pollsters she thinks the team should hit the road, and that the city should stop tinkering with a stadium dedicated to fallen U.S. soldiers. 

“What good did that spaceship renovation do?” the retired Chicago police officer from Brighton Park said. “Just stop. Build it somewhere else.”

Officials in Arlington Heights are rolling out the navy and orange carpet to make that happen, but the Bears are still trying to find the “property tax certainty” team chairman George McCaskey says they need to realize their $5 billion vision. 

Arlington Heights state Sen. Ann Gillespie filed legislation last week that would allow companies behind such massive projects to negotiate annual payments with local taxing bodies in exchange for freezing their assessments. But the bill isn’t expected to gain much ground.

“There was a note of skepticism even in the words of the person who introduced the bill,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said earlier this week. “I am of the opinion that it’s not our obligation as the state to step in and provide major funding.”

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