Lawmakers’ lack of action on new Bears lakefront stadium raises hopes in Arlington Heights

After a legislative session with no action on a new Chicago Bears lakefront stadium — and a conservation group coming out against the proposal — Arlington Heights officials are hopeful that the team may eventually turn its attention back to the suburbs.

Lawmakers adjourned Wednesday without even publicly considering the team’s proposal for a publicly owned stadium downtown.

Also Wednesday, Openlands, a regional conservation group, issued a statement opposing the plan, saying that the stadium would have “dire implications” for migratory birds and “breaks this promise” of a lakefront kept clear for public use.

“A stadium proposal that also includes detached hotels, restaurants, retail operations, and other structures is tantamount to a mixed-use commercial district in a public park,” Openlands stated.

The conservation group — not to be confused with the Friends of the Parks group that also has concerns — said the proposal would effectively offer public land for private purposes.

In Arlington Heights, Mayor Tom Hayes declined to gloat over the Bears’ lack of progress in Springfield, but said he hopes the team eventually will return to its previous proposal for a new stadium in his northwest suburb.

“We’ve been working over the last couple of months to stand ready if the Bears do get a ‘no’ and turn back in our direction,” Hayes said. “We’re continuing our discussions with the school districts to resolve the tax issue, which has been the sticking point so far. I think it will be easily resolved.”

In April, the team unveiled its proposal for a $3.2 billion enclosed stadium on the lakefront, just south of its home at Soldier Field. The team would put up $2 billion, but would need the state to borrow more than $1 billion, plus find up to $1.5 billion for new roads, utilities and other infrastructure.

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson supported the concept enthusiastically, though City Hall on Friday did not reply to a request for comment on lawmakers’ inaction. In a rare unified show of preemptive force, Gov. J.B. Pritzker, state Senate President Don Harmon and House Speaker Emmanuel “Chris” Welch all cast doubt on the plan.

Downplaying the disinterest, team officials said they weren’t pushing for legislation this session, merely starting a dialogue and having “productive conversations.”

The team issued a statement again promising that the project would create 43,000 construction jobs and more than 4,000 permanent jobs but has not shared how its consultant came up with those projections.

“We look forward to continuing to meet with elected officials, community leaders, business leaders, residents and fans to collaborate on ways to make this massive economic development project for Illinois a reality,” the statement read.

A relaxed timeline doesn’t fit with Bears President and CEO Kevin Warren hoping to start construction this fall and open in 2028, emphasizing that every year’s delay could cost $150 million-$200 million.

Despite what Warren called the team’s “laser focus” on Chicago, officials previously proposed moving to Arlington Heights.

Just last year, the team paid $197 million for the former Arlington Park horse track, which Churchill Downs Inc. shut down in 2021.

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In 2022, with much fanfare, officials announced plans for a $2 billion stadium there, with a surrounding mixed-use development of housing and entertainment. But after Warren took over, he reversed direction, saying the property taxes on the site were too high, and turned to Chicago.

The lack of movement with state lawmakers tells Joe Ferguson, president of the Chicago financial watchdog Civic Federation, that it’s time to consider other sites.

“It’s time for the Bears to turn the conversation from an either-or Bears proposal into a broader discussion of what options exist in the city,” Ferguson said.

The former Michael Reese Hospital site in the Bronzeville neighborhood would be ideal for allowing surrounding economic development, including a proposed Chicago White Sox stadium, Ferguson said.

The Bears rejected the site as too narrow, but Ferguson suggested that a public discussion could address how to overcome such limitations. The site also has tax increment financing that could help pay for development costs.

Whatever happens, there is still plenty of time to make a decision. The Bears lease at Soldier Field runs through 2033.