Soldier Field pictured in 2024. Credit: Michael DiGioia

It’s been an offseason of uncertainty for the Chicago Bears. 

A year after a long-anticipated deal to move to Arlington Heights fell through over a property tax dispute, the team returned this spring with an ambitious proposal for a new stadium on Chicago’s lakefront. 

The would-be state-of-the-art domed facility, that couldn’t bear less resemblance to the team’s current home at Soldier Field, received plenty of fanfare. After being conspicuously left out of the state budget for the coming year, though, they’re once again back at square one.

Released with flashy visual mock-ups and the strong backing of Mayor Brandon Johnson, the team touted the project’s majority-private funding, calling it “the largest private investment in Chicago’s history.” Nonetheless, the Bears requested more than $2 billion in state subsidies for construction and surrounding infrastructure. Now, with the legislature declining to include said subsidies in last month’s budget proposal, the idea may be dead in the water, at least for the time being.

Robert Peters (D-13), who represents the proposed stadium site in the Illinois Senate, was absent from the coalition of elected officials who endorsed the project upon its release. 

“I don’t think there’s necessarily an appetite to just give billionaires a whole bunch of money,” Peters told reporters last month. “They need to be realistic in what they ask for.” 

In their proposal, the Bears claim the project will generate 24,000 temporary jobs for Chicagoans and 2,300 permanent jobs thereafter as well as “1.3 billion in fiscal revenue” over the next thirty years. 

The team also projects an annual gross income of $92 million on those jobs. That works out to an average income of $40,000 that Miles MacClure, writing in the Reader, noted falls well below the city’s rising housing costs. 

The Bears estimate that the city, county, and state can expect an “additional” $64 million in annual tax revenue, according to the Tribune. The team says that’s a 37 percent increase over current levels, though it still falls short of the more than $2 billion in public subsidies they’re requesting. They did not initially present further details on the nature of those jobs, or those projected revenue increases. 

“Although we don’t have a precise breakdown of the jobs by industry, the development will generate well-paying positions across various fields like hospitality, accounting, legal landscaping and security to name a few,” a Bears spokesperson said via email. 

In addition to jobs, the facility would offer “opportunities for young people to take full advantage of open space and better access to the top tourist destination in the entire state of Illinois,” wrote Ronnie Reese, Johnson’s communications director, in an email to the Weekly.

Other members of the state legislature voiced concern over the team’s request for expedited approval from the state. “I think a proposal of this magnitude deserves sunlight and scrutiny,” State Rep. Kam Buckner (D-26) told the Tribune. “Very often, what has happened in [state government] is that things get rammed through at the last minute without much input and transparency.”

Even with Johnson’s ardent support, there is no viable path for the Bears to get public subsidies without the backing of state government. The majority of the proposed public funding originates from the Illinois Sports Facilities Hotel Tax, which is administered by the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority (ISFA), a state agency created in 1987 that’s responsible for financing and maintaining publicly-owned stadiums. Any large projects undertaken by the ISFA will need to be reflected in the state budget.

Governor J.B. Pritzker, one of the nation’s staunchest critics of awarding public subsidies to professional teams, called the Bears’ proposal a “nonstarter” last month, indicating the issue is “not a high priority” for the state. 

“We’ve seen other teams be able to support their own stadiums privately. That’s [what] would be ideal here,” Pritzker said in February. A spokesperson for the governor declined to offer further comment on the issue. 

In his support of the Bears’ plan, Johnson has repeatedly emphasized that the proposed funding draws from an already-existing tax. “I’m going to repeat that one more time to make sure everybody gets that,” he said at an April 26 press conference about the stadium proposal. “This project will result in no new taxes on the residents of Chicago.”

With the “year-round” attractions the domed 77,000-seat proposed facility would accommodate, he later added at the same press conference, “Chicago will generate significant new revenue that will support my commitment to investing in people.” But Illinois lawmakers still need to be persuaded that the Bears’ plan is a wise use of that tax revenue, whether it’s new or not.

That’s because the ISFA, a state entity, is responsible for managing the debt undertaken to pay for early-2000s renovations to Soldier Field and Guaranteed Rate Field. Three of the ISFA’s six board seats are appointed by Johnson, with the remaining three appointed by Pritzker. The director is appointed by the mayor with the governor’s approval.

The ISFA receives annual subsidies from the city and state, but most of its revenue is sourced from that two-percent city hotel tax. The idea that tax money from visitors and tourists’ pockets, rather than Chicagoans, will pay for the project has been another point of emphasis for the deal’s proponents. Whether that’s necessarily a good thing is another matter entirely.

The hotel tax has spent the last four decades quietly skimming off the top of Chicago’s diverse travel and tourism industries. Virtually none of that revenue has trickled down to Chicagoans, though. 

Since 1989, the ISFA reported more than $1 billion in gross hotel tax revenue, with more than $600 million since 2009 alone, according to data received in response to a public records request. According to the ISFA’s annual reports, nearly all of it has gone toward interest payments on the enormous debt undertaken for Soldier Field and Guaranteed Rate Field. Nonetheless, the ISFA reported a budget shortfall for three consecutive fiscal years between 2020-2023, with COVID-19-related damage to hotel revenues preventing them from fulfilling debt obligations to the state. 

Those financial woes are unlikely to die down anytime soon. That may be one reason state lawmakers are hesitant to sign off on any new arena plans. The ISFA has struggled with the debt’s heavily backloaded payment schedules, restructuring it with new bonds in 2014 and 2021. As a result, despite the projects now being decades in the rearview mirror, more than $500 million is still owed on them and isn’t due to be fulfilled until 2032.

Karen Murphy, now the Bears’ chief operating officer and executive vice president of stadium development, told the Sun-Times the team’s proposal includes yet another refinancing of those debt obligations. It’s a plan supported by city chief financial officer Jill Jaworski, who explained her position to the Sun-Times by stating the debt’s ballooning payment schedule late in the decade would likely pose problems for city finances if not reworked. The Bears’ plan would see the existing debt wrapped into an additional $1.2 billion in new ISFA bonds to be repaid over forty years with hotel tax revenue. This essentially maintains the status quo into the 2060s.

It may not be a new tax, but a commitment to forgoing four decades worth of substantial income is no small ask. Besides, Chicagoans might be forgiven for being wary of such long-term contracts. Recent sales of high-profile public assets like the Chicago Skyway and municipal parking meters, for example, backfired in almost no time, as it soon became clear that the revenue surrendered by the city would dramatically exceed what it had been paid up front. It’s easy to see why lawmakers might question the wisdom of what amounts to taking out a forty-year loan to address the ISFA’s already-spiraling debt load.

The Bears’ lease on Soldier field runs through the 2033 season, though they have an option to terminate it early at the cost of $84 million. The ISFA has no stated plans for hotel tax proceeds beyond fulfilling the current debt (though the Tribune reports that the money is legally set to be directed to McCormick Place after stadium repayment is complete). The real price to Chicagoans, then, may not be in money taxed out of their pockets, but in the opportunity cost of forgoing other uses for the tax for decades into the future. 

Revenue for Soldier Field in its current form is projected to be just over $50 million in 2024. Though it accounts for just less than a tenth of the Park District’s overall take, it’s still their second-biggest revenue generator. No party involved has said how a potential loss or reduction of that revenue—which includes the Bears’ $7 million annual rent payment and related parking proceeds on Soldier Field—may impact Park District services moving forward.

The Bears’ presentation noted that the “economic impacts” of recent Super Bowls have been estimated at between $350 and $400 million. Neither the team nor the city, however, has stated how much extra revenue they project from hosting events that Soldier Field is currently unable to facilitate. When reached for clarification, the Bears reiterated the reported economic impacts of the last half-decade’s worth of Super Bowls and Final Four weekends, neither of which have been hosted in Chicago.

Having asked for such a hefty commitment, the lack of concrete details has left fans and experts as skeptical as lawmakers. Stefan Mozer, who will be entering his forty-fifth year as a Bears season ticket holder this fall, doesn’t see the project as a local game-changer.

“I don’t think improving Soldier Field or building a new stadium will do much for the neighborhood. The neighborhood has already been mostly revitalized,” he told the Weekly. “There’s just not a lot of economic impact [in] that way.”

Decades of academic research back up Mozer’s sentiment that the purported community and city-wide impact is unlikely to materialize. In April, Johnson told reporters “Chicago will experience increased tax revenue from this investment…[with] stronger economic growth [for] generations to come.” Experts have their doubts. Noted sports economist Allen Sanderson told the Reader, “Whether it is an investment depends: Does it have a positive rate of return? And again, the answer is just overwhelmingly no.”

In March, stadium tax expert Geoffrey Propheter told the Weekly that “decades of research” show virtually no “tangible benefit” to similar kinds of funding deals. Whatever the size of the promised economic impact, it typically falls short. Propheter projects the property tax breaks the Bears will get on their proposed stadium to be worth nearly $700 million over the course of the forty-year term.

Asked to respond to experts who’ve expressed doubts about the plan, a spokesperson for the Bears cited Chicago’s lack of inclusion in a Sports Business Journal article titled “The 25 Best Sports Business Cities” in the country, stating, “This stadium and recreational space proposal finally gives the city and state a world-class enclosed stadium that could host major events from concerts to sporting events, like the Super Bowl, to CPS graduations.” 

Publicly, the Johnson administration has touted the transformation of the lakefront into green space with parkland, sports fields, and recreational areas based around Soldier Field. Johnson’s support for more publicly accessible parkland is well-taken, but some have questioned whether a redeveloped lakefront is a worthwhile priority for achieving that policy goal. 

“It’s something of a bizarre bait-and-switch approach,” said Fred Bates, a board member for Friends of the Parks, an environmental advocacy group, on behalf of the organization. “All [they’re] proposing,” he continued, “is to tear it down, put in some fields, and build another big stadium on the lakefront. And I think they’re pretending like that’s some kind of meaningful addition, which it isn’t.”

Bates doesn’t share Johnson’s hope that the proposed new parkland will be a difference-maker for Chicago.

“There isn’t a need for more playing fields on the lakefront. What there is a meaningful need for—and the Bears could fund this meaningfully in a heartbeat—is for more playing fields in the parks that are playing-fields-short,” said Bates.  

“To pretend like creating hard-to-reach playing fields is somehow going to help the communities in the city is pretty brazen, I would say.”

In any case, the legislature has spoken by way of their budget plans. If we hear about this again, it likely won’t be until next year. The Bears’ focus remains on the lakefront, but the property they still own in Arlington Heights looms in the background as a potentially attractive plan B.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle of all for the Bears’ plans is that for all the hubbub, much of their fan base remains indifferent about keeping them in the city. A poll commissioned by former governor Pat Quinn found that 65 percent of those surveyed opposed subsidies for a new stadium, with just 25 percent in support. 

Mozer, the longtime season ticket holder, thinks that Soldier Field is “adequate” and would have few issues if the Bears continued to play there. Still, although he’d strongly prefer to not have to purchase new, almost certainly more expensive season tickets, he wouldn’t be against an Arlington Heights move.

“I like Arlington Heights from a selfish perspective, as it’s much closer to where I live,” Mozer told the Weekly. “Parking is terrible [at Soldier Field], and expensive in the South Loop, and that seems unlikely to change with a new stadium.”

Bridgeport resident Conor Evans, twenty-eight, echoed Mozer’s sentiments. He called getting in and out of the Soldier Field area a “nightmare” and said even though he attends several games a year, “personally it wouldn’t bother me much.”

In a perfect world, the Bears would continue to call Chicago home, generating much-needed tax revenue for its residents while also giving them something to be proud of on the field. Reality, though, is usually more complicated. Sometimes, a parting of ways can be best for everyone involved. As hard as that may be.

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Malachi Hayes is a Bridgeport-based writer and South Side native.

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