• Ben Szalinski
    APR 25, 2024


    Warren wants Bears funding plan passed by end of May as top state leaders show little interest 

    Chicago Bears CEO Kevin Warren speaks at a news conference at Soldier Field on Wednesday. [Ben Szalinski/The Daily Line] 

    The Chicago Bears want $2.4 billion from the state of Illinois to build a new stadium and reimagine the current Chicago museum campus and Soldier Field property. But the plan was immediately met with little interest from Springfield’s top policy makers.

    After toying with the idea of moving to Arlington Heights, the Bears and new CEO Kevin Warren unveiled a $4.7 billion project on Wednesday to build a publicly owned football stadium in what is now the south parking lot of Soldier Field, tear down the renovated portion of the current stadium while leaving behind the historic colonnade and transform the current footprint of the National Football League’s (NFL) smallest stadium into green space.

    The plan has the support of Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson, several Chicago alderpersons who were in attendance at the announcement at Soldier Field on Wednesday, and a few state representatives. But the top decision-makers in Springfield, including Gov. JB Pritzker who would have to sign off on any plan, showed no interest on Wednesday.  

    How it will be funded  

    Funding for the project comes in two parts: the stadium itself followed infrastructure improvements. Those road and other transportation-related changes needed to make a new stadium logistically feasible and more of a wish list of infrastructure improvements to create green space.  

    The Bears and the NFL plan to invest $2.3 billion for construction of the stadium but are asking for $900 million in state bonds issued by the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority (ISFA). It breaks down to the state funding 28 percent of the new football stadium. That part of the plan will require legislative approval because it extends the debt limit in state law.  

    “Our funding proposal appropriately starts with us putting in one of the biggest private investments into a public-owned facility in the state’s history,” Bears Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President of Stadium Development Karen Murphy said, adding that is also one of the largest stadium investments in NFL history.  

    The Bears are also seeking legislative approval to refinance the existing debt of more than $600 million from ISFA that paid for the construction of the current versions of Guaranteed Rate Field where the Chicago White Sox play and Soldier Field. 

    “Extending the bonds out for 40 years we will free up enough capacity that we believe could be close to or exceed $1 billion,” Murphy said.  

    The Bears are not proposing any changes to the existing 2 percent hotel tax that pays down the ISFA bonds. They are proposing creating a reserve fund, however, if hotel tax revenue comes up short. 

    The bigger request to the state is $1.5 billion for infrastructure improvements that the team is seeking in three phases. The first $325 million would go toward transportation, roadways and utilities changes the team would need to open the stadium. Without that, Murphy said, the project would not be able to move forward. 

    The next $1.2 billion are not in the must-have category for the Bears but would go toward creating the green space and making the locatio a viable public attraction.  

    The Bears have made the appropriate commitment to deserve public money, Johnson said, by meeting targets he set to show their worthiness, such as a large private investment. Johnson, and Bears officials, also pointed to Daniel Burnham’s vision for keeping the lakefront accessible as to how the Bears plan fits into the larger vision for Chicago’s future. The plan would increase open space in the area by 20 percent, Johnson said.  

    “The increased tax revenue from this investment, the expanded public recreation, stronger economic growth of the entire city of Chicago for generations to come,” Johnson predicted. “One of the defining features of this project is that it calls for the implementation of everything that my administration has called for — true public investment. But what it does not call for is raising existing taxes or implemented any new taxes.”

    Revitalizing a stadium isn’t new to Warren. Warren oversaw the Minnesota Vikings’ building of US Bank Stadium. Debt on the stadium was paid off last year 20 years ahead of schedule.  

    Springfield’s reaction 

    Reaction from the state’s top leaders to the Bears’ proposal was not warm.  

    “I’m highly skeptical of the proposal that has been made and I believe strongly that this is not a high priority for legislators and certainly not for me,” Pritzker said at an unrelated news conference happening as the Bears’ plan was revealed. 

    Pritzker said even the capital funding the Bears want is a stretch, noting there are many priorities throughout the state for capital funding for other projects, which many people, including the governor, deem more worthwhile than a football stadium. Pritzker’s remarks in Maywood came on the fourth day of statewide travel discussing health insurance reform and boosting access to healthcare, especially in neglected areas. 

    Pritzker also pointed out public stadium projects aren’t popular with voters, as Kansas City voters just shot down an effort earlier this year by the Kansas City Chiefs for a stadium project — an effort that included public campaigning by Coach Andy Reid and quarterback Patrick Mahomes.  

    “If the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs can’t get the people of their area to authorize the building of a new stadium, and we’ve seen this fail over and over and over across the United States, I don’t really think that the people of Chicago or across Illinois feel any differently,” Pritzker said.  

    The Bears have only made the Super Bowl once, in 2007, since winning their only Super Bowl with Soldier Field as their home in 1986. Since the Bears’ 2007 Super Bowl appearance, the Bears have made the playoffs three times, last winning a playoff game in 2010. The team went 7-10 in 2023 and have not posted a winning record since 2018.  

    The sharpest remarks came from House Speaker Chris Welch (D-Hillside), who said he met with Warren last week. 

    “I’m going to say to you publicly what I said to Kevin Warren privately last week: If we were to put this issue on the board for a vote right now, it would fail and it would fail miserably,” Welch said in Maywood.  

    Welch said appetites for legislation always change in Springfield but it’s “highly unlikely” lawmakers change their mind about the Bears by the time session wraps up at the end of May. 

    Welch and Pritzker also pointed out that the White Sox and Chicago Red Stars also want their share of state money for stadium projects and it’s important “equity” is considered even among the teams. Warren said the Bears have had conversations with the White Sox as recently as Sunday but didn’t elaborate on any possibility of partnering on legislation.  

    On the Senate side, Senate President Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) and Sen. Seth Lewis (R-Bartlett) each released statements expressing caution about the project.  

    Warren downplayed their objections.  

    “Today was the first day that we have been able to publicly roll out our plan so it’s very difficult for someone to say they’re against this and we just presented it,” Warren said.  

    Some lawmakers are on board. Rep. Kam Buckner (D-Chicago) was in attendance and the Bears’ news release quoted House Revenue and Finance Committee chair Rep. Kelly Burke (D-Evergreen Park) stating her interest in continuing conversations. Rep. Marcus Evans (D-Chicago) was also quoted in support.  

    How they’re selling it 

    The Bears need approval as soon as possible, Warren said. His goal is to get a plan passed before the legislature adjourns until the fall. The General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn on May 24.  

    “We feel that the time is now,” Warren said. “Every year that we wait it’s $150 [million] to $200 million of increased costs that ultimately we’ll have to figure out. But we don’t think that’s prudent, so the time is now. Our expectation is in this session and the reason why we’re staging that now and not even in the fall veto session is because even if we’re approved in the fall veto session, we wouldn’t be able to get into the ground because of the weather.”

    As expected, boosting economic growth is also the major selling point of the project. The Bears believe the project will create 43,000 construction jobs with an $8.4 billion regional economic impact. Once the construction is done, they believe it will create $4,000 permanent jobs and big economic activity for the city and region. 

    “The private and public investments in this project are large, but the return on the investment is also significant,” Murphy said.  

    Murphy said the plan is projected to increase tax revenue directly for the city by $36 million annually, as well as $13 million for Cook County and $15 million for the state. Over 30 years, that comes to $1.3 billion.  

    Multiple Bears officials also stressed the Bears economic impact numbers and projects were conservative. Warren even tried selling the decision to go with a fixed roof rather than a retractable roof, that he said would likely get little use and cost millions more, as an example of the team’s commitment to being “fiscally responsible.” 

    Some of the other selling points of building a new domed stadium have been talked about for years. It would give Chicago a chance to hold major sporting events such as the Final Four, college football postseason games, and the Super Bowl. Warren added that he also believes the roof would make the stadium more attractive to music artists to hold more concerts because it eliminates the risk of weather issues.  

    Johnson pointed to more local uses that would benefit the Chicago community, such as high school football games at the stadium and year-round use of the green space. The space under the Bears proposal would have several athletics fields for public use. 

    “The city of Chicago will generate significant new revenue that will support my commitment to investing in people, to build a better, stronger, safer Chicago,” Johnson said. “And that means more revenue for mental health clinics, youth jobs, housing, investments in our community violence interrupters. Simply put, this is going to reinvigorate the entire city of Chicago.” 

    The jobs created is why it fits into Johnson’s progressive agenda, he said, which means the project is an investment in people.  

    “This is about investing in the thousands of jobs that will manifest as a result of this investment,” Johnson said.  

    But the city and team’s biggest opponent might not be skeptical state lawmakers, unwilling taxpayers or the Green Bay Packers. Rather Friends of the Park, an organization dedicated to protecting public access to Chicago’s precious green space and lakefront access, released a statement characterizing Wednesday's news conference as an example of the “Chicago Way.” 

    The group questioned the urgency for a new stadium, as the Bears still have a lease for Soldier Field for nearly another decade, prioritizing of the lakefront over other neglected city parks, and Johnson’s pledge to invest in people. While not said in their news release, a lawsuit could be in the works to argue the Bears’ plan violates city policy regulating private development on the lakefront.  

    “We are all being asked to trust the process and accept that it will, in fact, be Bear-a-dice,” the organization said. “Yet, Chicago has a long history of closed-door planning and rushed decision-making that does not end well for taxpayers.”

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