Seven months after Mayor Lori Lightfoot launched a Hail Mary pass to keep the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field, the team announced Wednesday it had finalized its purchase of the former Arlington Park racetrack, increasing the likelihood that the team will leave Chicago.
That means the once mighty but more recently mediocre – or worse – National Football League franchise is on the verge of leaving its home of 51 years.
Bears officials announced in September that the team had reached an agreement to buy the 326-acre property for $197.2 million, leaving no doubt that the Monsters of the Midway see the city’s northwest suburbs as the spot where they want to launch a “new and exciting chapter” for the storied franchise.
“Finalizing the purchase does not guarantee the land will be developed, but it is an important next step in our ongoing evaluation of the opportunity,” the team said in a statement. “There is still a tremendous amount of due diligence work to be done to determine if constructing an enclosed state-of-the-art stadium and multi-purpose entertainment district is feasible.”
The announcement comes less than two weeks before Lightfoot will ask Chicago voters to giver her a second term as Chicago mayor. The eight candidates who have challenged Lightfoot’s bid for reelection have all said the Bears’ looming departure would be a blow to the city and several blamed Lightfoot’s antagonistic approach to the football team.
State Rep. Kam Buckner and Ald. Sophia King (4th Ward), whose districts include the stadium, have urged the city to keep the Bears from moving out of Chicago.
But both former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson have said the Bears have already decided to leave Chicago, with Johnson blaming “the defiant nature of the Lightfoot administration.”
The mayor’s office in a statement downplayed the importance of the announcement made by the Bears, saying it had been “anticipated for some time.”
“Nonetheless, all us diehard Chicago Bears fans, the mayor included, know and believe that the Chicago Bears should remain in Chicago,” according to the statement.
Lightfoot will continue to make the “business case as to why the Bears should remain in Chicago and why adaptations to Soldier Field can meet and exceed all of the Bears’ future needs,” according to the statement.
The Bears pay $6.48 million annually to use Soldier Field, under the terms of a lease set to expire in 2033 that can be terminated early as long as the team pays a penalty.
In September, Lightfoot unveiled plans that would build a dome over the lakefront stadium and expand its seating capacity, and offered to use at least some taxpayer money to fund the renovations, which could cost as much as $2.2 billion.
After Lightfoot unveiled her administration’s plans for the stadium, a team spokesperson gave no indication Bears officials had any intention of rethinking their plan to make Arlington Heights the team’s new home.
However, the mayor’s office said now that the deal has closed and the Bears are no longer prohibited from considering other stadium locations, they believe team officials will enter into negotiations with the city, giving Lightfoot a chance to convince “the Bears that the team’s best future remains in our beloved city of Chicago.”
It is not clear why the mayor believes the leaders of the Bears would consider scraping their plans to move to Arlington Heights after finalizing its purchase on the property and while attempting to convince state officials to subsidize the project, which includes shops, restaurants and event venues.
When news first broke of the team’s serious consideration of the move to the suburbs, Lightfoot brushed off the threat, urging the team to “focus on putting a winning team on the field, beating the Packers finally and being relevant past October.”
Lightfoot has said regardless of whether the Bears leave Soldier Field, she wants to make the stadium a “year-round destination.” While one of the city’s proposals would put a dome over the stadium, the another would prepare the stadium for a dome while a final proposal would tailor the stadium for soccer.
The city’s proposal would expand the stadium’s seating capacity from 61,500 seats up to 70,000 “total seats including additional fan activation areas” and add seven suites, according to the mayor’s office. The plan would also make it easier to get to Soldier Field via public transportation with shuttles and trams.
Solider Field opened in 1924, and was last renovated in 2003 under a plan approved by former Mayor Richard M. Daley after the last time the Bears threatened to leave the city. That project was funded with $660 million in bonds that are being paid off with taxes paid by city hotels.
In February, approximately $415 million of that debt remained on the books of the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority in 2022, according to a report in the online publication Bond Buyer.
A plan for the future of the Museum Campus, crafted by a working group formed by the mayor, sees Soldier Field and the entire Museum Campus as an essential destination for tourists and a hub for residents.
Plans to build a dome over Solider Field could invite a legal challenge over the city’s Lakefront Protection Ordinance, which does not allow “further private development be permitted east of Lake Shore Drive.”
Watchdog group Friends of the Parks used that ordinance to sue the city when former Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed building the Lucas Museum in what is now a parking lot near Soldier Field. After the group won an initial round in court, Star Wars creator George Lucas dropped his plans in 2016 and built the museum in Los Angeles.