The Bears’ stalled stadium touchdown drive in Arlington Heights has cracked the door open for Mayor Brandon Johnson to keep the team in Chicago — but only if he’s willing to spend the enormous political capital it would take to move the team to the front of a long line.
Johnson is under intense pressure to deliver on his campaign promise to make $1 billion worth of “investments in people.” The smorgasbord of jobs, education, mental health and social programs is the cornerstone of the new mayor’s anti-violence strategy.
The migrant crisis has turned up the heat on Johnson even further, as evidenced by the protesters who shouted at Johnson during last week’s City Council meeting.
Against that “what about us?” backdrop, it would be tough to imagine Johnson moving a new stadium for the Bears to the top of his “to do” list — before reparations for descendants of slaves, creating a dedicated funding source to reduce homelessness or reopening Chicago’s mental health clinics.
That’s even if Johnson could find a Chicago site big enough to build the stadium-anchored, mixed-use complex needed to secure the Bears’ long-term future.
But State Rep. Kam Buckner, D-Chicago, a former mayoral challenger whose district includes Soldier Field, said his former opponent must be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.
“Public safety, pensions. You’ve got to triage. All of these things are important. But this is not something that’s unimportant,” said Buckner, who played defense on the football team at the University of Illinois.
“The Bears would have to be clear about what they want. Do they just want space for a stadium? There are places around Chicago where that can probably happen. Or do they want space for an entire campus? Do they want restaurants and retail and hotels? None of this can happen until they actually sit down and have discussions, which I don’t believe the last mayor was interested in doing,” Buckner said.
Mayor, Bears officials could meet soon
Bears spokesman Scott Hagel refused to comment amid word that an introductory meeting between Johnson, Bears CEO George McCaskey and team president Kevin Warren could take place within days.
Last week, the Bears declared building a stadium at the old Arlington International Racecourse was no longer the team’s “singular focus” — even after purchasing the site for $197 million.
Team officials then met with the mayor of Naperville, who pitched a stadium in that western suburb.
Hagel said then the Arlington Heights stadium was “at risk,” citing the property’s tax assessment and a recent settlement with Churchill Downs, which they believe “fails to reflect the property is not operational and not commercially viable in its current state.”
“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 in a statement.
Jason Lee, a senior adviser to Johnson, said the mayor looks forward to meeting with the Bears and plans to “start by listening.”
“We don’t know exactly what their interest is. We don’t know what the status of some of these other projects are from their perspective. We don’t know what they’re willing to even consider,” Lee said.
“What the mayor has said from the beginning is that he is definitely willing to have a conversation and talk about potential options for keeping the Bears in Chicago. If the Bears are interested — and I don’t know that they are — I’m sure they have things to say” about where a Chicago stadium could be built.
Bears ‘part of the fabric’ of the city
How important is it to Johnson to avoid having the Bears leave Chicago on his watch?
“It’s important to have a dialogue, to make an effort to talk to one of the critical civic institutions in the city of Chicago. …. Conversations, dialogue, relationships had broken down under the previous administration,” Lee said, calling the Bears “part of the fabric” of Chicago.
On the day the Bears took out the option to purchase the Arlington Heights site, Mayor Lori Lightfoot called it a “negotiation tactic,” noting the Bears were “locked into a lease” at Soldier Field.
“We want the organization to focus on putting a winning team on the field, beating the Packers and finally being relevant past October. Everything else is noise,” she said then.
Ultimately, Lightfoot offered to put a dome over a renovated, and somewhat enlarged Soldier Field, at a potential cost of $2.2 billion.
Chicagoan Marc Ganis, who has advised numerous NFL teams on stadium financing, promptly dismissed Lightfoot’s plan as “trying to put lipstick on a pig.” Even a renovated facility would be “a small, difficult-to-get-to, publicly owned and operated stadium that is not even close to being sufficient to host an NFL team in the third-largest market in the country,” he said.
Although the Arlington Heights deal is “far from dead,” Ganis said he believes “overreaching by politicians” in the northwest suburbs has created an “opportunity” for Johnson, if he chooses to seize it.
“First, he’s got to decide if it’s a political priority for him,” Ganis said. If he does, he has to pick a site other than Soldier Field.
Current stadium ‘economically obsolete’
“Soldier Field is economically obsolete, and frankly, was before the concrete dried” on the 2003 renovation, “It would have to be a new stadium that the Bears control. And frankly, the Bears will pay the lion’s share of it,” Ganis said.
“The second step is: Is he willing to assist in the development of the stadium? He could also say, ‘I can’t do this now. … Let’s have a good relationship for whatever the remaining years are in your lease at Soldier Field.’ And that could be it. Or, he could say: ‘What do you need from me to help you develop a stadium and spend billions of dollars within the city limits?’”
Johnson campaigned on a promise to raise $800 million in revenue through new or increased taxes, but he also needs to avoid “losing existing revenue,” Ganis said.
“There is an opportunity for a big political victory. And political victories — wherever they come from — assist a newly elected leader [who] most people don’t know very much about.”
Keeping the Bears could show that Johnson “understands that economic development is a necessary prerequisite to having the funds to pay for the social programs,” Ganis said.
Wherever the Bears end up, they will need “property tax certainty” to move forward with a project costing $2.5 billion for the stadium alone.
That, too, would be difficult for Johnson to deliver after promising to tax the rich, make wealthy corporations pay their fair share and avoid raising property taxes.
In addition, there are precious few city sites large enough to handle the massive development the Bears envision.
Suitable city sites few, far between
The South Loop site known as the 78 is bisected by an active railroad track, and the University of Illinois is building an academic and research hub there.
The contaminated South Works site that formerly housed U.S. Steel has bedeviled every developer who has ever tackled it.
That leaves the old Silver Shovel dump site at Roosevelt and Kostner, the old Finkl Steel site in the middle of Lincoln Park and McCormick Place East, which would violate the Â lakefront protection ordinance.
Veteran political strategist Peter Giangreco said Johnson would be better off letting the Bears go than he would be putting bread and circuses ahead of meat and potatoes at a time when hundreds of millions in bonds issued to renovate Soldier Field still must be repaid.
The passionate debate over $51 million in surplus funding for the migrant crisis demonstrated that competition for scarce city resources “is gonna be fierce, as it should be. There’s a lot of people left behind,” Giangreco said.
That competition will only intensify when federal stimulus funds now propping up budgets at the city, the CTA and Chicago Public Schools dry up.
“I don’t know anybody who thinks keeping the Bears is a priority right now,” Giangreco said.
“Most people would say Lori Lightfoot lost the Bears. Not Brandon Johnson. It’s not his problem to fix. … There’s just no reason to spend the political capital because it’s not his mess. This is his predecessor’s mess. She owns it. He doesn’t need to slip that jacket on. If he does, then he wears it.”