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A bigger, better Soldier Field? Lightfoot makes pitch to keep Bears in Chicago

“I am a Bears fan. I want the Bears to stay in the city of Chicago. And we are willing to work with them to try to address their concerns. But I’ve got to do it in a way that is fiscally prudent and doesn’t preclude other uses in that stadium,” Lightfoot told the Sun-Times editorial board.

Soldier Field before the start of the Chicago Football Classic at Soldier Field Saturday, Sept. 3, 2011.
Soldier Field, extensively renovated in 2003, still lacks many amenities of larger, newer stadiums in the National Football League.
Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Monday she wants the Bears to stay in Chicago and she’s willing to work with the team she loves to expand and improve Soldier Field and maximize year-round revenues, but in a “fiscally-prudent way that doesn’t preclude other uses.”

Three months ago, Lightfoot cavalierly dismissed the Bears decision to put in a bid to buy the Arlington Heights International Racecourse property as the same old, boy-who- cried-wolf-negotiating ploy.

She’s not doing that now.

During a Zoom meeting with the Sun-Times editorial board that primarily focused on her 2022 budget, Lightfoot made it clear she is taking the Bears’ threat to leave Chicago seriously.

A die-hard Bears’ fan and season ticket holder, Lightfoot acknowledged the need to enhance the fan experience at Soldier Field and turn the stadium into a year-round revenue generator.

“I am a Bears fan. I want the Bears to stay in the city of Chicago. And we are willing to work with them to try to address their concerns. But, I’ve got to do it in a way that is fiscally prudent and doesn’t preclude other uses in that stadium,” she said.

“We are evaluating ways in which we can enhance the fan experience at Soldier Field. …I know that it can be better. I’ve been to other stadiums across the country where the fan experience is far superior to what we have at Soldier Field.”

Lightfoot was asked repeatedly whether turning Soldier Field into a year-round revenue generator includes the possibility of adding the retractable dome that many of Chicago’s movers and shakers thought the city should have built in the first place.

She never answered the question. Lightfoot would paraphrase a Rolling Stones’ lyric.

“You can’t always get what you want. But you can try sometimes and get what you need,” the mayor said — without singing.

Turning serious, Lightfoot said she is “very sympathetic to some of the things the Bears have identified” and there are “a lot of different options we have to think about to really enhance” the fan experience and bolster “revenue-generating opportunities — not only for Bears games.”

“There are other stadiums across the country that I’ve been to that have really taken advantage of the ability to make the stadium a year-round destination — not just something that’s only used during football season and then lays dormant for the rest of the year,” she said.

“That stadium sits on a museum campus. … Outside of Bears’ season, there’s no real dining experience except for the food within the museums themselves. Even afterward, if you want to enjoy a nice meal or convene in another place, you’ve got to go outside of the stadium footprint.”

On the day the Bears took out the option on the Arlington property, Lightfoot said the Bears were “locked into a lease” at Soldier Field. She dismissed their real estate maneuver as a “negotiation tactic” the team had used before.

“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.”

Overall, the Bears want more control over a lakefront stadium that was renovated for them nearly 20 years ago at an expense to Chicago taxpayers that still won’t be paid in full for decades.

Soldier Field renovations under way in 2002.
Soldier Field renovations under way in 2002.
Associated Press

The Chicago Park District owns Soldier Field, so the team is limited in what it can do as far as expanding the capacity (currently about 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 openly campaigned to lure them. Hayes has called a potential Bears move a “best-case scenario” for his village.

On Monday, Lightfoot said she is “putting together a small team” to try and accommodate the Bears’ needs.

“I’m willing to sit down with the Bears at any time. But it takes two to tango. They’ve got to articulate to me and my team a specific set of asks and we have not gotten that yet from them,” she said.