The Chicago Bears are playing the field and the team’s search for a new stadium is expanding, with talk of Arlington Heights, Naperville and other communities as sites of a potential new stadium.
Those conversations have also reignited the possibility of the team sticking with the city, with a source telling WTTW News that talks between the city of Chicago and the team could resume as early as this week.
Demolition began last week at the former horse race track in Arlington Heights, which the team paid almost $200 million for in February, leading to speculation that the Bears were fairly set on making the northwestern suburb their new home.
Instead, Bears CEO Kevin Warren issued a statement Friday that said due to what the team says is an overly high property tax bill, Arlington Heights is longer the Bears’ “singular focus.”
Warren apparently accepted an invitation from Naperville’s new Mayor Scott Wehrli, who enticed the team with a letter saying that he’s a lifelong fan representing a community with a lot to offer.
“Naperville is accessible via our region’s major interstates and Metra. We have several available or to-be-available sites that may fit the characteristics you are looking for in your future home,” the letter reads.
Arlington Heights Mayor Thomas Hayes says he’d always known the Bears would keep their options open, and that in order for it to work both sides need the ultimate deal to be beneficial.
It’s important to realize that it was Naperville that instigated the conversation, not the other way around, Hayes said.
“If I were the Bears, I would take the phone call,” he added. “And if I were a local mayor who had property in my community, I would make efforts to try to attract an NFL franchise to my community as well. I can certainly understand where everybody’s coming from.”
Hayes said the notion of competition has spurred some residents to push him to do more to lure the Bears, while others say “good riddance.”
The village of Arlington Heights is not directly involved with negotiations over the property tax valuation of the former racetrack site. Hayes said he is trying to encourage conversations between the team and the three school districts that heavily depend on property taxes from the site. Other considerations include traffic patterns, conversations with the railroad and making sure the end result will be a net financial positive for the region.
Despite the flirtation with other communities, Hayes said he feels good that Arlington Heights will be a winner in the end.
“The Bears have been looking at the property at Arlington Park for about 50 years now, since the mid- 1970s. And I really think it’s their dream site,” Hayes said. “Right in the middle of their fandom in the northwest suburbs. And so I really don’t anticipate that they would walk away from this unique, once in a lifetime opportunity,” Hayes said.
Not so fast, per an ally of Mayor Brandon Johnson, who said word from the Bears its open to other opportunities presents an opening for the city of Chicago.
State Rep. Kam Buckner ran for mayor, played football for the University of Illinois and is a member of Johnson’s transition team.
He said unlike the New York Jets and Giants that both play in New Jersey, and the L.A. Rams and Chargers which both play in suburban Inglewood, it’s special that all Chicago sports teams play within the actual confines of the city, and it should stay that way.
“The Bears entertaining the idea of moving to Naperville, I think opens up a window of hope for those who us who have always felt that we should still be having conversations about finding a deal that makes sense for both the city of Chicago and the Chicago Bears organization,” Buckner said. “And I think Mayor Johnson really does deserve the opportunity to broker that deal.”
Buckner’s district covers Soldier Field so he’s partial to the team staying here. But he says Chicago also should be open to possibilities of other locations given the Bears’ desire to host concerts and have a hotel.
“This is not a done deal. We’ve got time, we’ve got space,” Buckner said. “The great Chicago writer Nelson Algren said ‘Chicago’s a ninth inning kind of town.’ We’re talking about football, so I think it’s a fourth quarter kind of town. I think we’ll figure it out.”
Buckner said he knows from prior conversations with Johnson that the mayor wants a chance to keep the team in Chicago, but Bucker said he hasn’t talked about the Bears with Johnson since word broke Friday of Naperville’s overture.
Johnson’s office didn’t return a call on Monday seeking comment, nor did the Bears.
But a source with knowledge of the situation says a talk between the two sides is likely to take place in the next several days.
Meanwhile, the lawmaker who sponsored legislation (HB610) that would use freeze taxes on the racetrack property to help the Bears’ move to Arlington Heights said he is focused on getting the best deal for the Bears.
State Rep. Marty Moylan, D-Des Plaines, said he had the votes to pass his bill during the just-adjourned session of the General Assembly, but didn’t because he wanted to give the communities and team time to work out a deal on property taxes. The measure also calls for sharing sales tax proceeds from stadium good purchases with Arlington Heights and surrounding communities, and institute a $3 surcharge on Bears game tickets that would go to Chicago to help pay off debt from the last round of renovations meant to keep the team at Soldier Field.
“They’re the driving force, it’s not me,” Moylan said. “It’s that whatever deal works out for them – the figures have to work. The money has to work, so they can be a viable operation. They don’t have (Dallas Cowboys owner and billionaire) Jerry Jones kind of money. They’re (Bears owners the McCaskeys) a very frugal family.”
Moylan represents parts of the northwest suburbs, so he’s most interested in the team going to Arlington Heights. He said the multi-purpose, massive development the Bears envision would be huge for the region, providing jobs and major financial benefits.
“Remember that Cook County won’t get any sales tax if it (the team) moves to Naperville. (Cook County Board) President (Toni) Preckwinkle’s going to be saying ‘where’s mine?’ if all of a sudden it’s going to Naperville,” Moylan said. “Rockford threw their hat in the ring, and other cities are going to be throwing their hat in the ring. Because this is a multi-billion dollar proposal. A domed stadium. We can have Super Bowls here.”
Moylan said he knows Rockford is making a pitch, though he has not seen the offer.
Rockford officials did not return a request for comment.Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky