The Chicago Bears Fan of the Year is eager for a new stadium. Corey Schieler, who was named top fan by the team last year, has sat through frigid temperatures at Soldier Field, and would love the team to get a dome. But he’s also a businessman, so he understands the current impasse in making that happen.
“A new stadium is much needed,” he said. “But that’s negotiations for any kind of business plan, especially of this size. You have to play all sides to make a good business outcome. It’ll just be long and painful, and everybody understands that.”
As the Bears kick off a new season Sunday, so much has happened in the team’s search for a new stadium, yet with so few definitive results.
In the past year, the franchise paid $197 million to buy Arlington International Racecourse, with plans to build an indoor stadium there as part of a $5 billion entertainment and housing complex. Then several roadblocks sprang up.
After taxes were raised substantially on the property, to lower those costs, the Bears began tearing down the horse track grandstand, which now lies mostly in rubble. The team also met with officials in Naperville to consider other options there. Aurora, Waukegan and Richton Park also have put out the welcome mat.
Proposed laws to give the team tax breaks went nowhere, and negotiations with school districts over future property taxes ground to a halt.
Then there is the question of what it would take to keep the team in Chicago. The team’s lease runs through 2033, but they can leave early in 2026 if they pay an $84 million fee. Last year, then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot proposed spending $2 billion to put a roof on Soldier Field to try to get the Bears to stay.
The team rejected the idea at the time, saying they were only interested in Arlington Park. The team has expressed dissatisfaction with being a tenant of the Chicago Park District, whereas a new stadium would give the Bears control of lucrative naming rights, the sale of new seat licenses, parking, concessions, advertising and more.
The team has also promoted the idea of a new domed stadium hosting mega-events such as the Super Bowl, college playoffs and concerts. Since the tax issues arose, officials have opened discussions with new Mayor Brandon Johnson but it’s unclear what it would take to keep them in the city.
On Friday, Johnson said the city needs to be more restrictive about using public dollars to subsidize private developments such as potentially, new sports stadiums. Johnson did not rule out public-private economic development but said the city does not have the type of capital available to “ignite” mega-developments.
All that leaves the Bears a little closer to the goal line of building a new stadium, but they have a lot of yardage to grind out.
To assure fans all is well, Bears President and CEO Kevin Warren sent a letter Friday to season ticket holders, saying he is “working diligently to deliver on a new, multipurpose indoor stadium complex that will provide a best-in-class gameday experience.”
Warren said he has reengaged with Johnson, and praised the “vision” the mayor’s team has offered regarding the team staying in the city. Still, the team remains engaged with officials in Arlington Heights and other suburbs.
“We are encouraged by the progress so far,” Warren wrote, “and we look forward to narrowing and defining our location in the near future.”
In Arlington Heights, the Village Board last week voted to put redevelopment of the former Arlington Park at the top of their list of priorities for the coming years.
The Bears remain at a standstill with three local school districts — Palatine Community Consolidated School District 15, Arlington Heights-based Township High School District 214 and Palatine-based Township High School District 211 — in determining how much in taxes the team should pay. The schools, the team and the village each have hired lobbyists to push their position in Springfield.
Warren has said the schools’ proposal for the Bears to pay about $8 million a year in property taxes is a “nonstarter” and “not viable” for a property that will sit idle for at least the next two years. The team proposed paying slightly more than half that much, still more than what the track paid when it was operating.
Village officials are trying to get the two sides to resolve the gulf between them, Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes said.
“We are actively and aggressively trying to get the parties to come to an agreement, and we’re hoping we can move the process along in the near future,” he said. “Then we can start seeing more definitive plans from the Bears to continue our due diligence and evaluations to make sure this is good for Arlington Heights and the region.”
The mayor has indicated officials are open to tax breaks for the team if it leads to a positive economic result for the village. Not everyone is on board with the idea. A poll by the anti-tax group Americans for Prosperity Illinois last year found that more than two-thirds of residents welcome the team to their suburb, but also opposed using tax dollars to help the process.
Brian Costin, deputy director for the libertarian group, told the Tribune that the group continues to fight for local taxpayers and equality before the law. The group has collected more than 4,000 signatures to place an advisory referendum on the presidential primary ballot in March 2024.
Fan of the Year Schieler, who is active helping children through the Make-A-Wish Foundation and who lost his father, a Vietnam veteran, last year, said he has special memories of his father cheering at the team’s Salute to Service flyovers at Soldier Field.
“That’s the hardest piece, with all the memories at that stadium,” he said. “I’ll have to create new memories at a new place.”