A skeptical Springfield awaits after Chicago Bears pitch stadium plan backed by mayor

A skeptical Springfield awaits after Chicago Bears pitch stadium plan backed by mayor

The Chicago Bears stood with Mayor Brandon Johnson at Soldier Field on Wednesday to launch their public push for a domed stadium on a reimagined lakefront that could cost nearly $5 billion, but the pitch was met with wariness from the triumvirate in Springfield that ultimately will control its fate.

Despite Johnson’s ringing endorsement for the plan that would see the Bears chip in about $2.3 billion in private funding, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Democratic leaders in the state House and Senate made clear the team doesn’t currently have the support it needs to make the architectural renderings a reality.

With the price tag of the stadium itself estimated at $3.2 billion, the Bears are asking the state to take on $900 million in new debt to cover the remaining cost, backed by an existing 2% tax on hotel stays in the city, as well as an additional $1.5 billion in unspecified “infrastructure” funding to reimagine Soldier Field for park space and youth athletic programming.

The team also wants the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority to refinance existing debt for prior projects at Soldier Field and at Guaranteed Rate Field, where the White Sox play, and to borrow at least $150 million to cover future shortfalls in hotel tax revenue. The new so-called liquidity fund would insulate the city from having its share of state funds reduced when the dedicated tax doesn’t bring in enough to cover the annual payment.

The plan calls for repayment of the new borrowing to be stretched out over 40 years, and the whole proposal would require approval from the legislature and the governor. Neither Bears officials nor Chicago Chief Financial Officer Jill Jaworski could say what the total tab would be of that debt for future taxpayers over the planned 40-year term, but both argued the costs would largely be borne by out-of-towners staying in city hotels.

“I believe strongly that this is not a high priority for legislators and certainly not for me,” Pritzker said during an unrelated event in Maywood, held at the same time the Bears and Johnson were making their pitch.

Even as the Bears are seeking quick state approval, the governor has yet to even meet with the team about its plans, a sign of the uphill battle team officials face in trying to push the proposal through the General Assembly before lawmakers are scheduled to adjourn May 24.

House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch of Hillside, speaking at the same Maywood event where he joined Pritzker to tout the governor’s health insurance reform proposal, put it more bluntly.

“I’m going to say to you publicly what I said to (Bears President) Kevin Warren privately last week: If we were to put this issue on the floor for a vote right now, it would fail,” Welch told reporters.

Like Pritzker and Welch, Senate President Don Harmon of Oak Park welcomed the Bears’ commitment to providing private money for the project, which includes a $300 million loan from the NFL.

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“But there’s an obvious, substantial gap remaining, and I echo the governor’s skepticism,” Harmon said in a statement.

At Soldier Field, where renderings of the proposed new Bears stadium were displayed with great fanfare and even a hype video, Warren countered the initial pushback from state officials, whose absence from the unveiling was noteworthy.

“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. “So we look forward to having more conversations with the individuals in Springfield, Gov. Pritzker and Speaker Welch, and I haven’t seen any of these things that you’re alluding to because I’ve been here on stage. But we’ll continue proceeding forward.”

Speaking later to the Tribune Editorial Board, Warren said conversations with state officials have been taking place, though “they have not reached the level of with the city.”

“I’d like to look forward to a productive conversation with the governor and his staff members to be able to articulate our plan to him and hopefully share why this makes sense not only to the city of Chicago but to the state of Illinois,” Warren said.

But the team is depending, at least in part, on help from Johnson and his administration in selling the plan in Springfield, which could be a gamble given the at-times tense relationship between City Hall and the governor’s office.

In addition to asking for state help to finance a portion of the stadium construction, the team also is looking for as much as $1.5 billion in public funding for infrastructure improvements spread out over three phases lasting up to five years.

The city would be responsible for finding those dollars, but neither city nor Bears officials gave specifics about what state or federal funding buckets they hoped to tap.

The first phase — largely to move utilities and roads to accommodate the new location and reduce bottlenecks for fans driving to and from the stadium — would cost $325 million. It is “required” to open the stadium, Bears officials said.

The next two phases would include the open spaces the mayor lauded as the public benefit to the city at large. The second phase would include the demolition of much of Soldier Field, with the exception of the historic colonnades that surround the current stadium and the south end horseshoe around the current Gate O containing the exterior Soldier Field dedication “to the men and women of the Armed Forces.” Also included in the second phase would be parking, a bus depot expansion, and new parks and playing fields, according to the team’s presentation. That part would cost $510 million.

The third phase, which could cost $665 million, would include other enhancements to the Museum Campus, including restoring the colonnades, making “further transportation improvements,” adding retail and other public attractions.

The mayor’s full embrace of the Bears’ plan is a 180-degree turn from the team’s frayed relations with Johnson’s predecessor, Lori Lightfoot. Her first reaction to the team’s interest in moving to Arlington Heights was to mock the NFL franchise and encourage its leaders to “focus on putting a winning team on the field, beating the Packers finally and being relevant past October.”

If Johnson becomes the mayor who keeps the Bears in Chicago, that could be seen as a major and much-needed victory for a newcomer who has had a rocky first year in office. But there’s no guarantee voters will embrace public financing to assist a multi-million dollar private business such as the Bears. And it also won’t be easy given Johnson has expended significant political capital in Springfield on the ongoing migrant issue while other pressing needs such as increased state spending on education remain pending.

To that end, the progressive mayor maintained the project does not contradict his values of investing in the South and West sides, arguing the economic benefit will reverberate across the region.

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“This is going to reinvigorate the entire city of Chicago,” Johnson said. “It will be the crown jewel of the city of Chicago.”

Whether that argument will whip up enough votes in Springfield, however, remains to be seen.

To advance their plan, the Bears and Johnson will have to win over not only Pritzker and the legislative leaders but also rank-and-file lawmakers.

State Sen. Robert Peters, whose district includes Soldier Field, said he remained skeptical and hadn’t had the opportunity to fully examine the proposal yet, though he gave the Bears credit for coming to the table with a substantial private investment.

Nevertheless, he said he harbors doubts about whether all the promises would pay off.

“Sports teams have (economic) contributions, but oftentimes we talk about stadium deals, they tend to sell those contributions a lot bigger than they actually end up being,” Peters said. “I don’t know of any sports stadium deal that’s ever actually met the lofty goals of their project.”

Veteran Rep. La Shawn Ford, a Chicago Democrat, said the state legislature needs to “stay open and strike a balance.”

“In the present form, it would probably die,” he said. “But things change if people come to their senses, and say, ‘Look, we need to offer the state and the city more.'”

Even state Rep. Kam Buckner, who attended the Bears’ announcement, said his presence was not a function of his support for the plan, some details of which he said he learned for the first time Wednesday.

For the negotiations with the Bears to be real, the team needs to commit to staying in Chicago, said Buckner, whose district also includes Soldier Field.

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“Today was the first step in that direction, which was helpful,” he said.

Despite the team’s promised private investment, “the appetite in Springfield is extremely low” for any public financing, Buckner said.

Another factor complicating the team’s Springfield sales pitch is its prior commitment to building a stadium in Arlington Heights, where it spent $197 million to purchase the former Arlington International Racecourse.

Convincing suburban lawmakers to support a new Chicago stadium for the Bears could be a tough sell, particularly for those who would be left with a large undeveloped tract of land in their community.

Democratic state Rep. Mary Beth Canty of Arlington Heights said the economic benefits the Bears promised in their latest stadium plans in Chicago would also be possible at the former racetrack. And, like Pritzker, the Bears’ ask for public funding would come at the expense of other state needs, she said.

“I think there are a lot of very big and important things that we are trying to accomplish for families here in Illinois, and I think that’s where people’s attention will be focused for the remainder of the session,” she said. “I think those days of sort of rushing through things at the end of the session are long gone, especially when you’re talking about dollar amounts at the levels that they’re speaking of.”

For his part, Warren acknowledged the team still has work to do at the statehouse.

“We don’t think this is a fait accompli,” Warren told the Tribune Editorial Board.

“There are different constituents at different places and time along the path to finalizing this deal. So you may have the mayor at one location; the governor may be somewhere else. The speaker, the president of the Senate, different elected officials. That’s just what normally happens. But we hope that when it’s time to take a vote, that they all are in the same location and that is to say, ‘Yes, let’s go forward and make this happen.'”

Chicago Tribune’s Rick Pearson, Jeremy Gorner and Alice Yin contributed.