Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office calls Bears’ stadium proposal ‘non-starter’ after meeting

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration continued to call the Chicago Bears’ $4.7 billion proposal to build a domed stadium on a reimagined lakefront a “non-starter” following a Wednesday meeting between team executives and top Pritzker aides, the first since last week’s unveiling of the plan.

The message echoed much of last week’s rhetoric from Pritzker and other state leaders after the Bears proposed building the project with help from the public, including $900 million in new debt to cover costs for the stadium plus up to $1.5 billion in infrastructure funding to deconstruct Soldier Field and convert it for park space and youth athletic programming.

“As the Governor has said, the current proposal is a non-starter for the state,” Pritzker spokesperson Alex Gough said in an email after aides to the governor held the 90-minute remote meeting with Bears President Kevin Warren and Executive Vice President Karen Murphy. “In order to subsidize a brand new stadium for a privately owned sports team, the Governor would need to see a demonstrable and tangible benefit to the taxpayers of Illinois.”

The statement after the meeting reflected all of the same skepticism Pritzker projected on the proposal last week, when he indicated the Bears’ pitch could be a poor deal for taxpayers. It also reflected his stated attitude for years that Illinois should be wary of using public funds to build private stadiums.

The Bears, for their part, called the initial conversation “productive.”

“We share a commitment to protecting the taxpayers of Illinois and look forward to further discussions,” the team said in a brief statement.

The meeting was the first tangible move by the Bears since last Wednesday when the team, alongside a supportive Mayor Brandon Johnson, publicly laid out plans for a $3.2 billion domed stadium development plus anywhere from $325 million to $1.5 billion in infrastructure costs around the stadium area.

As part of the deal, the state agency for stadium development projects, the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, would borrow at least $900 million in new cash as well as refinance an existing $430 million in debt that remains from building and renovating Soldier Field and Guaranteed Rate Field where the White Sox play. In addition, a $160 million liquidity fund would be established. Long-term costs and interest on the initial state borrowing would add up to at least $4.8 billion, not counting $325 million to $1.5 billion in infrastructure spending.

Warren insisted last week that the team wanted to get a deal done by the end of the current legislative session, which is scheduled to adjourn in a little more than three weeks on May 24.

In addition to Pritzker, House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch of Hillside and Senate President Don Harmon of Oak Park also expressed skepticism about the Bears’ plan, even though the team has offered $2.3 billion in private funding.

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The pitching of pictures and renderings is “behind us now,” Pritzker told reporters Wednesday. “We’re just talking about numbers.”

The governor’s office, represented at the meeting by Deputy Gov. Andy Manar and chief of staff Anne Caprara, appreciated the opportunity to discuss the proposal with the Bears, Gough said. The office did not respond to a question about whether Pritzker had any upcoming plans to meet with the team.

Legislative sources said lawmakers are scheduled to be briefed Thursday about unanswered questions regarding the stadium plan.

The initial reluctance by Pritzker and the Democratic legislative leaders last week sets up up challenging negotiations for the team over the next month. The team will have to convince not only legislative leaders but rank-and-file lawmakers within and outside Chicago.

So far, the Bears have “talked to an awful lot of folks” in Springfield and are “doing a fine job,” Pritzker said Wednesday.

While the Bears try to pitch the Chicago lakefront plan, there’s also the Arlington Heights factor. The team previously spent $197 million to purchase a tract of land in the suburb for a possible stadium, making a Chicago stadium potentially an even tougher sell to some suburban lawmakers.

The Bears have said a new stadium would generate jobs and $64 million annually in additional amusement, hotel, income and sales taxes.

“There’s a lot of questions about whether the deal could get done,” Pritzker said. “I’m very hopeful that they could put something on the table. But you’ve got to remember that we have a lot of priorities.”

Gorner reported from Springfield. The Tribune’s Dan Petrella and Bob McCoppin contributed.