Civic Federation president urges Lightfoot to pull out all stops to keep Bears in Chicago

As the head of Chicago’s foremost taxpayer watchdog group, Laurence Msall might be expected to urge fiscal caution. But Msall said losing the Bears would be a blow the city should try hard to avoid.

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Thousands flock to Soldier Field before the Chicago Bears take on the Detroit Lions, Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021.

Chicago Bears fans filled Soldier Field earlier this month to watch their team defeat the Detroit Lions.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Civic Federation President Laurence Msall urged Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Tuesday to pull out all stops to keep the Bears in Chicago — and not necessarily at Soldier Field.

As the head of Chicago’s foremost taxpayer watchdog group, Msall might be expected to urge fiscal caution or even tell the Bears, “So long. Good luck in Arlington Heights.”

But on Tuesday, Msall said the Bears are a “jewel in the crown of tourism attraction” for Chicago — “in spite of last Sunday,” he added, when the team was flattened by the defending Super Bowl champions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Losing the Bears would be a blow the city should try hard to avoid — not “just reputationally, but also economically,” he said.

“Whether that can be done inside the [Soldier Field] stadium that Mayor Richard M. Daley insisted be rebuilt for the Bears is a question mark. If that’s not able to be done into a modern stadium with the capacity to host … mega-sporting events like the Final Four or the Super Bowl, then the city should be coming forward with alternative sites,” Msall told the Sun-Times.

This photo shows a view of the newly renovated Soldier Field, the home of the NFL’s Chicago Bears 29 September, 2003 on opening night of the new stadium against the Green Bay Packers.

A full renovation of Soldier Field was completed in 2003. It gave the team more suites and pricey sideline seats to sell, but reduced overall capacity.

AFP/Getty Images

Msall said there is “enough land in Chicago in various places that might be attractive” to the Bears, provided the team has “control over parking and other ancillary benefits” at the designated site.

“It doesn’t have to be that the city pays for the financing and construction of the stadium. Arlington Heights is not offering to finance construction of a potential Bears stadium” either, Msall noted. “But they do offer a lot of land. With that comes control.”

Last month, the Bears signed an agreement to purchase the 326-acre site of the now-shuttered Arlington International Racecourse for $197.2 million.

Since then, the primary focus has been on Soldier Field and the constraints of a lakefront seating bowl already towering over historic colonnades at a stadium that’s also a war memorial.

With those limitations in mind, Msall shifted the focus away from Soldier Field and toward other sites.

If the Bears are “willing to travel to Arlington Park,” they would surely be willing to “willing to look at other sites” in Chicago, he said.

“We have a very long shoreline. We also have a lot of land in former industrial areas. The Southeast Side of Chicago has much open land. There are spots on the West Side that are under-developed,” Msall said.

“They’re buying the land in Arlington Heights. … They would probably be willing to buy the land [in Chicago] if you helped assemble it. If you made sure it was adequate for their needs ... Make it easy for them to consider alternatives. If it was connected to public transit in a way superior to the other sites they’re looking at. Soldier Field is not an easy place for most fans to get to. An improvement in that regard could be very significant.”

Arlington International Racecourse, 2200 Euclid Ave in Arlington Heights, Ill. on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021.

Arlington International Racecourse, shown in late September after its last race.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Planning and Development Commissioner Maurice Cox is helping to spearhead the city’s efforts to keep the Bears.

Last week, Cox told Sun-Times business and labor columnist David Roeder he is “not willing to give up on” Soldier Field.

“Show me the studies that say it can’t be done. There is a whole history of retrofitting historic stadiums to get the size, to get the coverage,” Cox told Roeder.

Pressed on whether the city was offering the Bears alternative sites, Cox said: ”No, no. We’re not able to talk about that. … We have an amazing facility at Soldier Field. … We would be remiss not to stay focused on it.”

Msall has his doubts about whether the Bears would even accept a renovated or domed lakefront stadium they do not own and control.

If and when the focus shifts to other sites, Msall said at least some consideration should be given to tearing down McCormick Place East and building a new stadium there.

McCormick Place East, also called the Lakeside Center, is along the east side of Lake Shore Drive.

McCormick Place East, also called the Lakeside Center, is along the east side of Lake Shore Drive. It is a possible site for a new stadium for the Chicago Bears.

Sun-Times file

That’s even though that would run into trouble in Springfield as well as lakefront protection issues similar to those that killed the Lucas Museum.

“You have to negotiate — not just with the Chicago, but state officials. And some official from Downstate Illinois will be looking for something totally unrelated in exchange for their support of that,” Msall said.

“That’s not impossible. It’s worth taking a look at. Everything should be on the table because there is enough time for the city to come forward with proposals to keep them in Chicago. Is it the end of the world if the Bears leave Chicago? No. But is it a missed economic opportunity? Is it a loss for the city of Chicago? Yes. So having a proposal that competes with the Arlington Park proposal is something, at a minimum, I would hope the city would do.”

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