Taxpayers would pick up half the tab for Bears’ lakefront stadium development, sources say

Taxpayers would pick up half the tab for Bears’ lakefront stadium development, sources say

The Chicago Bears are set to announce a $4.6 billion plan to build a new enclosed stadium and improved lakefront area with half of the money coming from taxpayers, sources said. But the team will have to overcome serious skepticism from several directions.

The stadium itself would cost $3.2 billion to build, with another $1.4 billion in proposed infrastructure improvements, according to sources familiar with the plan who spoke to the Tribune on the condition of anonymity.

The sources said the Bears plan to pledge $2.3 billion, which includes some financing through the NFL. But the Bears’ plan includes an additional $2.3 billion in public financing, along with refinancing outstanding debt for prior publicly financed stadium projects for the Bears and White Sox, according to the sources.

Taxpayers would be on the hook for the proposed infrastructure improvements along with about $1 billion in new borrowing to finance the new stadium south of Soldier Field, the sources said.

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 details are expected to be revealed at a much-anticipated news conference at noon Wednesday where officials will lay out plans for the domed stadium with increased open space.

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, who a spokesperson said Tuesday had not been briefed by the team about the stadium plans. 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.

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Joe Ferguson, president of the Civic Federation, a fiscal watchdog group, told the 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.

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But since Kevin 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.

Chicago Tribune’s Olivia Olander contributed