Efforts by the Chicago Bears to build a new home stadium on the former Arlington Park have stalled — but the Monsters of the Midway still appear committed to leaving Chicago and Soldier Field, officials said Friday.
A spokesperson for the Bears confirmed that team President Kevin Warren met with Naperville Mayor Scott Werhli on Friday about moving the team to the state’s fourth largest city, which straddles DuPage and Will counties, 30 miles west of Chicago.
Building a stadium on the former Arlington Heights racetrack, which the Bears purchased for $197.2 million in February, “is no longer our singular focus,” Scott Hagel, the Bears senior vice president of marketing and communications, said in a statement.
“It is our responsibility to listen to other municipalities in Chicagoland about potential locations that can deliver on this transformational opportunity for our fans, our club and the State of Illinois,” Hagel said.
A spokesperson for the Bears did not respond directly to questions from WTTW News about whether the team would now consider remaining at Soldier Field past 2033, when their lease with the Chicago Park District expires. The Bears pay $6.48 million annually to use Soldier Field, and can terminate that agreement early as long as the team pays a penalty.
Representatives of both the Bears and Mayor Brandon Johnson, who took office less than a month ago, declined to comment on whether negotiations to keep the team in its home of 51 years had resumed.
Werhli reached out to Warren on May 24 with a letter making the case for Naperville as the Bears’ new home, extolling the city’s “vibrant downtown, excellent public transit and close proximity to major interstates,” said Linda LaCloche, a spokesperson for Werhli.
The Bears will continue working to develop what team officials have called “an enclosed state-of-the-art stadium and multi-purpose entertainment district” in Arlington Heights, but that plan is now “at risk,” Hagel said.
“We will continue the ongoing demolition activity and work toward a path forward in Arlington Heights, but it is no longer our singular focus,” Hagel said.
The project appears to have faltered after Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi set the 2022 value of the 309-acre former racetrack at $197 million, approximately $200,000 less than what the team paid for it. That represented a massive increase from the property’s $33 million assessment in 2021, and ensured that the Bears were facing a massive, and unanticipated, property tax bill.
Scott Smith, a spokesperson for Kaegi, said the assessor’s office must assess properties based on their market value.
“The 2022 assessment of the former Arlington Racecourse site is consistent with both the 2023 purchase price of the property and the price per square foot of other similarly sized land in the area,” Smith said in a statement. “The facts speak for themselves.”
The property’s former owner, Churchill Downs, appealed that assessment to the Cook County Board of Review, telling officials that property was worth $37 million. In turn, several local school districts objected to that valuation and urged officials to set the property’s value at $150 million.
Those school districts, which includes Palatine’s Community Consolidated School District 15, are set to see their coffers swell along with the value of the former racetrack, since that will determine how much the Bears pay in property taxes.
Cook County Board of Review Commissioner Samantha Steele announced Thursday that her office had brokered an agreement with Churchill Downs and the school districts to value the property at $95 million in 2022.
“The Chicago Bears are the owners of the 300-plus acre site in Arlington Heights and will be responsible for paying future taxes on that land until they are no longer the owners,” Steele said in a statement to WTTW News. “If the Bears want to remain the ‘Chicago’ Bears, I suggest they play their home games in the core of the Chicago metropolitan area, and not on the periphery.”
The agreement brokered by Steele did nothing to assuage the concerns by the Bears, since it still values the property as worth five times what it was in 2021 and “fails to reflect the property is not operational and not commercially viable in its current state,” Hagel said.
In July, former Mayor Lori Lightfoot unveiled plans that would build a dome over Soldier Field 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.
Efforts by the team to convince state officials to subsidize the proposed Arlington Heights development, which includes shops, restaurants and event venues, have so far been unsuccessful.
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.
Approximately $415 million of that debt remained on the books of the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority in 2022, records show.
A plan for the future of the Museum Campus, crafted by a working group formed by Lightfoot, envisioned Soldier Field and the entire Museum Campus as an essential destination for tourists and a hub for residents.