CHICAGO — With tax negotiations at a $100 million impasse, a new report said the Chicago Bears are shifting their stadium focus from Arlington Heights to the city’s lakefront — now their primary target for a new home, instead of the northwest suburbs.
According to Greg Hinz with Crain’s Chicago Business, the decision to re-focus efforts on a new stadium along the lakefront is not just a tax negotiating tactic with Arlington Heights, but the real goal of the team.
Hinz said if the team gets its way, the Bears could go public with an expansion project into the south lot of Soldier Field, featuring a brand-new, state-of-the-art domed stadium that could play host to the NCAA Final Four, Super Bowls, and other big name events that have eluded Chicago, in addition to the usual Bears games every Sunday.
In the article, Hinz said the deal for a new Bears stadium would be financed in part by tapping into a ‘unique bonding clause’ in the law that governs the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority (ISFA). It’s a clause that expires at the end of the year, sources told Hinz, and according to his interpretation, Soldier Field would — for the most part — be converted to public parks and athletic fields, a step that could ease legal difficulties involving construction in the area.
According to Maurice Scholten, president of the Taxpayers’ Federation of Illinois, the bonding clause was a part of a state budget implementation bill in 2021. That clause would allow the ISFA to refinance their debt and issue new bonds for sports projects above their current cap of $150 million for ISFA-owned facilities and $399 million for other property owned by other agencies, like the titleholder for Soldier Field — The Chicago Park District.
Hinz said with the ISFA having $488.6 million in outstanding debt (as of June 30, 2023) and all of its debt scheduled to be retired by 2032, the way could be cleared for hundreds of millions in new bonds.
A wrinkle in that game plan could come from the White Sox, though.
Hinz said Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf is reportedly eyeing the same financial source from the ISFA for a potential new baseball stadium in the South Loop, and it’s not clear if ISFA funds from an existing 2% tax on Chicago hotel revenues would be sufficient to cover both projects.
Other factors cited in the article that pointed toward the Bears staying in the city include the skyrocketing price of developing the 326-acre Arlington Heights site, continued jostling over property taxes and incentives — with the Bears and Arlington Heights-area school districts reported to be $100 million apart on the perceived tax value of the land parcel — and the change in relationship dynamics from Lori Lightfoot to the Brandon Johnson administration.
According to Hinz, initial meetings with Mayor Johnson and the team have gone much more smoothly than they did when Lightfoot was in office.
When it comes to opposition, Hinz pointed toward the advocacy group ‘Friends of the Parks’ as a player who could offer a major roadblock if they opposed redevelopment of Soldier Field.
Friends of the Parks (FOTP) effectively killed the development of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Arts back in 2016, forcing the museum to move to Los Angeles, and FOTP attorney Fred Bates told Hinz the group is ready to fight again.
“At least a parking lot is open space,” he said in a phone interview with Hinz. “Any attempt to create a private development on the lakefront is not acceptable.”
Meanwhile, plenty of other questions remain unanswered, as Hinz pointed out. What do the Bears do with the Arlington Heights land parcel? How much money will the NFL be putting forward toward the project? Can Johnson pull off making such a complex deal?
The only thing that is sure at the moment, is that the Bears are far from where they were a year ago when it comes to where they want their future home to be.