Why would the Bears pivot off Arlington Heights? What to know from the latest report

Why would the Bears pivot off Arlington Heights? What to know from the latest report originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

In a shocking report, Crain's Chicago Business reported the Bears' main stadium focus is now centered on constructing a stadium on the South Lot of Soldier Field, not on the $197.2 million property they purchased in Arlington Heights.

The Bears have put a lot of work into that property. They signed an agreement to purchase the land in September 2021. They purchased the land for $197.2 million in February 2023. And over the summer, they spent millions on demolition to tear down the structures from the race track in Arlington Park.

But all of that could go to waste, should they decide to pivot to the lakefront scene. Why would the Bears scrap Arlington Heights for their next stadium location? Here's everything we know.

Is the Bears/Arlington Heights tax issue too far apart?

The Bears and the school districts of Arlington Heights have been battling on the property value of the land the Bears purchased for some time now. That's played a major role in the Bears' disinclination from the property.

Reason being? The higher the property value, the higher the tax bill. Churchill Downs, who was on the hook for the increased tax bill in 2022, filed an appeal last year saying that the property value was $37.2 million. School districts in the area, which are funded by property taxes, countered with $150 million.

The two sides eventually settled for $95 million, which took Churchill Downs’ tax payment from around $16.2 million to just under $7.8 million. But that was just a one-year agreement between both sides. The Bears are on the hook for the 2023 tax bill and have been renegotiating for months.

As it stands, the team and the surrounding school districts remain $100 million apart in their valuations of the site, according to testimony at a hearing on the dispute in January.

The team’s attorney argued at a Cook County Board of Review hearing that the property should be valued at $60 million and taxed at the 10% rate for residential and vacant land, due to the work done to demolish the existing structures on the site, versus the 25% tax rate for commercial properties.

The Bears’ lawyer said the team submitted two appraisals of the site, one for $60 million and the other for $71 million, and contended the assessor’s office inflated the value of the land relative to similar sales in the area.

Three surrounding school districts – which rely on property taxes for their funding – intervened in the Bears’ appeal. The schools submitted an appraisal finding the site to be worth $160 million, leaving a $100 million gap between the two sides.

This gap is too much to believe both parties will eventually shake hands on a property value. Initially, Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s office placed the value at $197 million. Cook County saw the property valued at $33 million. Each side has come about $30 million closer to the middle. But the gap is still substantial.

This would likely be the main reason motivating the Bears to pivot off Arlington Heights if they choose to do so.

How would the Bears finance a stadium in the city?

With Arlington Heights, the Bears affirmed they would plunk down the money for the majority of the project. But they admitted to Arlington Heights they would need public funding for infrastructure.

The Bears and Arlington Heights never got to a stage where they started negotiating on the subject. But this plan was met with a lot of skepticism from the folks in Arlington Heights.

If the Bears choose to build a stadium in the city, Crain's Chicago Business suggests the option could be easier to finance.

"The deal would be financed, at least in part, by tapping a unique bonding clause in the law that governs the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority — a clause that expires at the end of this year, informed sources say," Greg Hinz wrote.

"According to Maurice Scholten, president of the Taxpayers Federation of Illinois, the clause was tucked without much notice into a state budget implementation bill in 2021. The clause would allow the agency to refinance debt and issue new bonds for sports projects above ISFA’s current cap of $150 million for ISFA-owned facilities and $399 million for other properties owned by other agencies, such as Soldier Field-title holder the Chicago Park District. With ISFA having $488.6 million in outstanding debt as of June 30, 2023 — and all of its debt scheduled to be retired by 2032 — the way could be cleared for hundreds of millions in new bonds."

Hinz reported White Sox owner and chairman Jerry Reinsdorf may also be interested in the attractive clause. The South Siders are reportedly interested in building a new stadium at "The 78th" in the South Loop of the city.

What would happen to Soldier Field?

If the Bears decide to construct a stadium on the South Lot, they might need more room than just the lot for parking and other amenities. Remember, they practically had a whole town sketched out for the surrounding areas in Arlington Heights when their main focus remained in the suburbs.

It's also important to remember Soldier Field lost its historical landmark status in 2006, due to the interior renovations the team made in 2002. That means the stadium, in theory, could be torn down to make room for something new.

Crain's report suggests the stadium would likely remain, however.

"And if I read the tea leaves right, Soldier Field would be largely converted to public parks and athletic fields, a step that could ease legal difficulties over building on the lakefront," Hinz wrote.

Hinz also reported one insider told him "We know the Soldier Field area can work."

Who's behind the move off Arlington Heights, back to the city?

The initial mind behind the Bears' new stadium desires was former CEO/President Ted Phillips. He stepped down in February 2023 and the Bears hired former Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren in his place.

Warren has ample stadium construction experience. He was the mastermind behind U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, which resides in the downtown area. Warren is very calculated when it comes to building a stadium, showing patience and diligence thus far with the organization.

“You can’t enter in these decisions haphazardly and kind of decide as you go,” Warren said during the Bears end-of-season press conference. “I think the key to it is making sure we’re very deliberate.”

Warren also appears to have a strong relationship with Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson. Both of their camps have met multiple times, twice having released a statement in succession to their meetings. Meetings between both sides have gone "smoothly," according to Crain's report.

Warren has a strong affinity for the downtown Chicago area, too. He lives downtown. He's also shown strong affection for Soldier Field and the lakefront area.

"Very rarely you do get an opportunity to have such a beautiful downtown with a vibrant business community with an absolutely beautiful lake and the energy that goes along," Warren said. "And so I always focus on you know, what's a way that we can, you know, bring together the beauty of the lake, the beauty of downtown, the business community, all the art exhibits, to bring that together for an environment? It's always about the fans. How can we create an environment that they really enjoy?"

What roadblocks could stand in the way of a downtown stadium?

Advocacy groups for the public parks and Soldier Field could stand in the way, according to Crain's report.

“At least a parking lot is open space,” Friends of the Parks Attorney Fred Bates said to Hinz. “Any attempt to create a private development on the lakefront is not acceptable.”

Hinz said Bates and the group are ready to fight if necessary. The group sued Lucas Museum, according to the report, which eventually relocated to Los Angeles instead of Chicago. If the Bears attempt to mess with Soldier Field or any public property, things could get hairy for them.

The Bears still own the land in Arlington Heights, too. They paid a hefty price to obtain it. And just because they might decide to move off that land, that doesn't mean it's going away. They will have to figure out an alternative route it, or that burden could put a big hitch in their plans.

Stay tuned, as Hinz indicated a plan from the Bears could go public soon.

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