Bears unveil their lakefront stadium plans as Gov. J.B. Pritzker says ‘I remain skeptical’

CHICAGO — The Chicago Bears — one of the National Football League’s charter franchises — on Wednesday unveiled plans for a new stadium project on the lakefront partly funded by the public that would give the team a facility in line with many of the NFL’s ultra-modern, fan-friendly structures.

Joined by Mayor Brandon Johnson and other local political leaders, team officials held a noontime news conference at their current home — 100-year-old Soldier Field — where they detailed what the multipurpose, fix-roofed, 77,000-capacity stadium and surrounding area would look like and sketched out how the plan would be funded.

Absent from the event was Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who earlier in the day repeated his skepticism of a plan that relies on public funding.

But Bears team President and CEO Kevin Warren called it “a special day.”

Johnson said the project would “result in no new taxes on the residents of Chicago.” He and Warren rattled off the community benefits and big-name events the project would bring, like Super Bowls, Final Fours and concerts.

The stadium would be owned by the Chicago Park District, the team said.

Karen Murphy, the team’s executive vice president of stadium development and chief operating officer, said the project would cost more than $4.6 billion. The stadium would cost $3.225 billion with up to $1.4 billion for infrastructure.

The Bears would commit more than $2 billion to what she called one of the biggest private investments into a public facility in Illinois history. All of the team’s investment would pay for 72% of the stadium itself, with a Chicago hotel tax helping fund the rest plus all the infrastructure costs.

The project would require an increase in bonding by the Illinois State Facilities Bonding Authority.

The proposal includes 14 acres of athletic fields and recreational park space, with restrooms for the public. The area could be used for local youth sports, farmers markets, classes and graduations, Warren said.

The team showed a video with an artist’s conception of the new stadium with what appears to be an open wall on one side with a translucent roof.

It also promised an enhanced lakefront pathway for bikes and pedestrians, with increased usable open space, and an open field for the public between the remaining colonnades from the old Soldier Field.

The stadium, by Manica architects, would have a translucent roof made of ETFE, similar to other newer NFL stadiums, and it would have a clear glass window on one wall with a view of downtown.

“You’ll get all the benefits of being indoors but you’ll feel like you’re outdoors,” Warren said.

The team rejected a moveble roof because it would cost a couple of hundred million dollars more, and they’re trying to be fiscally responsible, Warren said.

A diversity, equity and inclusion program would allow women- and minority-owned businesses and people of color an opportunity to work on and with the project.

There will be a project labor agreement and a stadium oversight committee to keep the project accountable, Warren said.

While no new taxes would be introduced or expanded, the project is heavily reliant on public funding. And the Bears will need to overcome serious skepticism from several directions. Warren said he expected questions from the community.

Pritzker said Wednesday morning at an unrelated news conference that taxpayer assistance for stadium projects is “not particularly popular around the country.”

He noted that voters in Jackson County, Missouri, recently rejected a tax proposal to help fund stadium projects for the Kansas City Royals and Chiefs on the heels of the NFL team’s latest Super Bowl victory.

As for the Bears’ plans, “I remain skeptical about this proposal, and I wonder whether it’s a good deal for the taxpayers,” Pritzker said. “There are a lot of priorities that the state has, and I’m not sure that this is among the highest priorities for taxpayers.”

Pritzker said “owners of these private businesses need to put a lot more forward in order to have their dreams fulfilled and not just rely on the taxpayers of Illinois to have that happen for them.”

To make the plan a reality, the Bears want the Illinois General Assembly to approve new bonding for the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, which carries the debt for prior projects at Soldier Field and Guaranteed Rate Field, sources said.

Some of the new borrowing would be used to roll over existing stadium debt, and the plan calls for the new borrowing to be paid off over 40 years, which also would require legislative approval.

Sources said the Bears’ plan calls for the debt to be repaid without raising the 2% hotel tax that currently goes to ISFA.

The 2% hotel tax has fallen far short of paying off the existing debt. As a result, taxpayers still owe $629 million for past renovations of Soldier Field and Guaranteed Rate Field, whose occupants, the White Sox, also are seeking a new stadium in the South Loop.

Raising ISFA’s borrowing limit and stretching repayment over 40 years could prove to be a tough sell in Springfield, however, where legislative leaders so far have given the Bears, and the Sox, a cool reception.

Then there is the question of whether the Bears can legally build on the site. The city’s lakefront protection ordinance calls for public use of the lakefront, and the team has called for public ownership of the stadium.

The nonprofit Friends of the Parks opposes building a stadium for a privately owned team on the lakefront. The group successfully drove “Star Wars” creator George Lucas away from plans to build a movie art museum on the same site, now used for parking lots.

The Bears’ proposal will have to win over skeptics, including Gov. J.B. Pritzker. The governor had previously called the Bears’ proposed investment “a good first step,” and said he’s willing to listen to their proposal, but said it shouldn’t be a priority for the state.

Joe Ferguson, president of the Civic Federation, a fiscal watchdog group, told the Chicago Tribune in a recent interview that the Bears and Sox need to show vetted cost and revenue projections.

“Everybody wants to keep the teams (in the city) — the question is, on what terms?” he said. “There’s not a lot of information necessary to say one of these (plans) actually is viable, or whether it’s a way to take us to the cleaners when we’re already carrying hundreds of millions of dollars of debt for the last time we did something like this.”

The city recently went through a similar scenario, he said, when it chose the Bally’s casino for development, only to find the project is already being scaled back and has funding issues.

“I think Gov. Pritzker has spoken to this exactly right, with a real wariness about public funding of sports stadiums,” Ferguson said. “We need to see reliable, thorough revenue projections for this before we can even open the conversation.”

Making the situation more precarious, Ferguson said, is that all levels of government are facing financial cliffs in multiple areas — pensions, transit and Chicago Public Schools — with the end of billions of dollars in federal COVID-19 pandemic money.

Sports economist J.C. Bradbury, voicing a common concern among economists, said whatever public money is earmarked for the stadium would be better spent on other public projects, or returned to taxpayers.

“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me,” Bradbury said. “The Bears aren’t going to leave one of the most iconic football markets in the country. Tell the Bears to pay for their own damn stadium, and if they don’t like it, to go jump in Lake Michigan.”

The team has taken a long, strange trip to get to this point. In 2022, officials agreed to buy the former Arlington International Racecourse for $197 million, closing on the deal last year. Under prior President and CEO Ted Phillips, the team made an elaborate presentation of its plans for a $5 billion mixed-used development on the 326-acre site, with an enclosed stadium, housing and entertainment.

But since Warren became team president and CEO last year, the team has been unable to reach an agreement over property taxes with local schools in the Arlington Heights area.

As the Minnesota Vikings did when Warren was an executive there, the Bears reversed course from a suburban stadium site to downtown. Warren has extolled the beauty and energy of the city, talked of his rapport with Mayor Brandon Johnson, and has said the lakefront is the “ideal location.”

“Absolutely we can build something that would be magnificent downtown,” he said.

The team wouldn’t necessarily have to move right away, with a lease at Soldier Field through 2033. But Warren has talked about the importance of momentum in getting the stadium project done. State lawmakers are scheduled to meet until May 24, then have a veto session in the fall, and a brief lame-duck session in the new year.

Reconstructing the museum campus around a new Bears stadium could help attract new residential and retail development along the lakefront, replacing some of the tax revenue lost by the declining property values of downtown office towers, said Eric Feinberg, vice chairman and co-head of the Chicago region for Savills, a commercial real estate firm.

If the Bears’ proposal improves lakefront access with better public transportation with new gathering spaces, it’s possible the new stadium district will attract families year-round, not just on a handful of Sundays.

Feinberg said he still doesn’t understand why the Bears didn’t settle disagreements with Arlington Heights’ officials before buying the former Churchill Downs site.

“It seems so strange they would plop down all this money, and then say this is just not working out for us,” he said. “It boggles my mind.”

If the Bears do cut a deal for a lakefront stadium, it would leave Arlington Heights with a big hole to fill, said John Melaniphy of Melaniphy & Associates, a former business and development coordinator for the village of Arlington Heights. But even without football, the former racetrack site could still attract mixed-use developments with apartments, restaurants and entertainment.