Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Wednesday sounded almost resigned to moving on at Soldier Field without the Bears, at least if convincing the team to stay requires building a new stadium to accommodate the financial reality of the modern-day National Football League.
Lightfoot was forced to face the possibility of the Bears leaving Chicago when the team upped the ante in the high-stakes negotiations by signing an agreement to purchase the Arlington International Racecourse property.
Churchill Downs pegged the price at $197.2 million and said it anticipated closing the sale in 2022 or early 2023.
Between now and then, Lightfoot hopes to talk turkey with the Bears about what she can do within fiscal reason to expand and improve Soldier Field and maximize year-round revenues.
But if nothing short of a new, preferably domed stadium — either in parking lots adjacent to Soldier Field or on land now occupied by McCormick Place East — will prevent the Bears from moving to Arlington Heights, the beloved Bears could be a goner.
“You know the economics of municipally-financed stadiums, as do I, as do the Bears. If you look at what’s been built recently in the NFL — whether it’s SoFi [the Rams/Chargers stadium in Los Angeles] or the Allegiant in Las Vegas, you’re talking about a $4 or $5 billion venture. And if you look into the future, that price tag is only gonna go up,” Lightfoot said Wednesday in an interview with Mike Mulligan and David Haugh on 670 The Score.
“In a time where we’re going through a recovery from an epic economic meltdown as a result of COVID-19, we’ve got to be smart about how we spend taxpayers’ dollars and I intend to do just that. … I would love that the Bears be part of our present and our future. But we’ve got to do a deal that makes sense for us in the context of where we are.”
Bears team president Ted Phillips issued a statement Wednesday saying the purchase agreement is “the critical next step in continuing our exploration of the property and its potential.
“Much work remains to be completed, including working closely with the Village of Arlington Heights and surrounding communities, before we can close on this transaction,” the statement continued. “Our goal is to chart a path forward that allows our team to thrive on the field, Chicagoland to prosper from this endeavor and the Bears organization to be ensured a strong future. We will never stop working toward delivering Bears fans the very best experience.”
Phillips and Bears chairman George McCaskey declined to speak with the Sun-Times.
The Bears would still need approval from the Village of Arlington Heights to build a stadium, but it doesn’t sound like that will be a problem.
“I could not be more excited,” Mayor Tom Hayes said. “The Village is committed to working with the Bears organization and all stakeholders to explore this opportunity for Arlington Heights and the northwest suburban region.”
This isn’t the first time the Bears have talked of going to Arlington Heights; when the idea was floated in the 1970s, Mayor Richard J. Daley threatened to prevent the team from keeping “Chicago” in its name.
At first, some saw this renewed interest as another negotiating tactic, though news of the purchase agreement has changed that.
Lightfoot said she appreciates the heads-up phone call she got from McCaskey. But what she clearly does not appreciate is the team’s decision to cancel a negotiating session that had been scheduled for Tuesday as it continues to play cat-and-mouse about what, if anything, it would take to keep them at a renovated Soldier Field.
“We can’t operate in the dark. I don’t have a magic eight ball to divine what the Bears want. Obviously, we have some sense of it. But you’ve got to get down to brass tacks. You’ve got to put your cards on the table and figure out what’s possible and what’s not possible. ... We have been open to a conversation. They have not,” she said.
“They’ve got a contract that runs to 2033. I’m not about to let them out and certainly not on a ‘Thanks for the memories and goodbye.’ If they want to leave, they’re gonna have to pay us consistent with the contract. But we’ve got to have a discussion with them and they’ve got to put some cards on the table, which, thus far, they really haven’t been willing to do.”
That payment for leaving Soldier Field early could amount to about $86.9 million, according to a Chicago Sun-Times analysis of the team’s 2001 lease with the Chicago Park District, which owns Soldier Field.
Renovations to Soldier Field started the year after that lease was signed. The work was financed by bonds issued by the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority. The total debt, about $660 million, won’t be paid off until 2032.
Two architects who worked on the Soldier Field renovation and a structural engineer familiar with that project told the Sun-Times that when it comes to improving the facility, the mayor’s hands may be tied by the constraints of a lakefront seating bowl already towering over historic colonnades at a stadium that’s also a war memorial.
Chicago architects Dirk Lohan and Adrian Smith said only modest expansion is possible at the NFL’s smallest stadium, and only in the north and south end zones. And a retractable dome would be equally difficult, requiring a new support structure.
Sports marketing expert Marc Ganis went even further.
He argued nothing short of a new stadium will keep the Bears on the lakefront, because the “economics of the NFL” have “changed dramatically” since the renovation.
“It wouldn’t really matter that much if the mayor said you could do naming rights. You could do gambling. And you can have more advertising. You can put in more events. The building itself was economically obsolete before the concrete dried.”
During Wednesday’s radio interview, Lightfoot pretty much agreed.
She argued the Bears cut a deal 20 years — and two mayors — ago that “they’re unhappy with” and “clearly feel doesn’t work for them” in current NFL economics.
“There’s longstanding issues way before I came on the scene. I can’t do anything about the past. All I can do is about the present and the future. And we were more than willing to have a reasonable discussion with them. But they’ve got to want to come to the table in good faith,” she said.
Lightfoot: Room to do something ‘bold’ on lakefront
With or without the Bears, Lightfoot said she is intent on improving the fan experience at Soldier Field, maximizing year-round revenues.
The mayor said she is “very mindful of what the restrictions are” along the lakefront. But, she argued, there is “still room to do something big and bold” without running afoul of the Lakefront Protection Ordinance and Friends of the Parks. Opposition from that group killed former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to build the Lucas Museum near Soldier Field.
“We are not getting the best that we can out of that venue. Six months of the year or so, it stays empty. … It makes no sense to me that we’ve got these massive parking lots that are vacant for much of the year,” she said.
“So we’ve assembled a small group that is gonna start looking at, what can we be doing really from the Shedd [Aquarium] down to McCormick Place, to maximize the value of this incredible asset and really make the fan experience — whether they’re coming for a Bears game or they’re coming for a concert — something that is really enjoyable and can be there as a year-round revenue generator.”
As far as whether the Bears can use “Chicago” in their name, Lightfoot noted Wednesday the NFL already has 11 teams that play outside cities in their names. And when asked whether she’d like to see a second football team in the city — which Mayor Richard M. Daley once sought — Lightfoot said only: “We’re a long, long way from that discussion.”
Noting that Soldier Field was “rocking” for last weekend’s Shamrock Series match-up between Notre Dame and Wisconsin, Lightfoot said: “If the Bears decide their future is in Arlington Heights — and I hope that’s not the case — we’re not gonna lack for suitors to make Soldier Field a permanent home.”
Even if the Bears move, the taxpayers will have to shell out a lot of money to pay off the stadium renovations.
Three months ago, the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority refinanced part of its Soldier Field debt to let Chicago taxpayers off the hook for what would have been a $22 million cost tied to the pandemic, which caused a drop in the hotel tax revenue used to pay off the Soldier Field bonds.
In the last fiscal year, ending June 30, the debt service payment was $46.5 million. It goes to $49.4 million in 2022, and continues to increase gradually until balloon payments at the end: $66.5 million in 2030, $81.7 million in 2031 and $86.9 million in 2032.
Those balloon payments were among changes made after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as the travel industry ground to a halt.
To salvage the Soldier Field renovation deal, Richard M. Daley pressured the Bears to permanently forfeit their right to sell corporate naming rights to Soldier Field and built in a two-year protection for Chicago taxpayers.
Under the original version, the state could keep a chunk of the city’s share of the state income tax whenever the Chicago hotel tax failed to grow at an annual rate of 5.5% — enough to retire $399 million in stadium bonds.
The new version was restructured — with interest payments deferred, triggering those balloon amounts — to make a local tax bailout unnecessary for two years. That gave the airline, convention and tourism industries an opportunity to rebound from the devastating losses they suffered after the terrorist attacks.
Contributing: Mitchell Armentrout, Patrick Finley, Jason Lieser