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A Chicago Bears stadium in Arlington Heights could get public help, village’s mayor says, but resources are limited

After initially downplaying taxpayer subsidies for a proposed Chicago Bears stadium, the mayor of Arlington Heights is leaving the door open to limited public help for the project.

“People would love to see the Bears come, but they don’t want their property taxes to increase, and they don’t want traffic nightmares,” Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes said. “We’re still in the process of evaluating what we might be able to do from a financial perspective. … We want to make this happen, so we’ll have to see what their needs and our abilities are, and try to balance the two.”

Such help might come in the form of a tax increment financing district or another local tax district that would use the site’s property taxes to pay for roads, sewers and other infrastructure. Any proposal would be subject to a public hearing. With the Bears hoping to do a deal by early 2023, Hayes said, a public hearing would likely be before the end of this year.

Since hiring a new coach and general manager, the team seems to be working more quickly to investigate the Arlington site, Hayes said.

“We’re past the hypothetical stage,” he said. “They’re doing their due diligence in terms of potential infrastructure and roadway improvements, who all the stakeholders are, and how we might work with them to get all those questions answered to make it a viable site.”

In September 2021, the team announced it had signed a preliminary agreement to pay $197 million for the 326-acre home of Arlington International Racecourse. Churchill Downs Inc., which owns the site, permanently closed the track to horse racing last year.

The purchase price is almost equal to the $194 million that Churchill Downs recently announced it was spending to buy 1 million shares of its stock from The Duchossois Group, part of series of such purchases. CDI also plans to hold the Arlington Million race at Churchill Downs Racetrack Aug. 13. Earlier this year, former Arlington owner Richard Duchossois died at age 100.

Elsewhere last week, the Buffalo Bills recently announced a deal for $850 million in taxpayer financing to help pay for a $1.4 billion new stadium. And Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee reportedly has proposed that his state provide $500 million toward a new covered stadium for the Tennessee Titans football team, contingent on Nashville also providing money.

But public sentiment against paying for privately owned sports arenas has soured in recent years. Most recently built stadiums in the National Football League have been paid mostly with private money, including all of the funding in Los Angeles. In Chicago, taxpayers are still paying $432 million plus interest of the $690 million it cost to renovate the Bears’ current home at Soldier Field in 2003.

Research has shown that publicly funded stadiums typically cost cities more than they get back, said Amanda Kass, associate director of the Government Finance Research Center at the University of Illinois Chicago. “It’s not really a good deal for cities,” she said.

Therefore, she said, the question of public financing becomes largely a political question.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has suggested the city won’t offer big subsidies to the team, and has tried to redirect the conversation by saying it’s important to make better use of Soldier Field at times the team isn’t playing. But she has hinted that the city could find ways to help the team.

In February, for instance, Lightfoot said the city will make a “compelling financial case” for the team to stay in the city and her administration will “explore” the possibility of placing a roof on Soldier Field, though she did not elaborate.

Asked if there are non-Soldier Field locations where the Bears could move in Chicago instead of Arlington Heights, Lightfoot said there are plenty of other spots “if the Bears were interested, but we have to see if they want to look at a different option.”

“I’m not for a 100% municipally funded stadium, that model has failed all over again across the country, but we’ve got to have a premier stadium to match our premier team,” Lightfoot said.

State officials are not contemplating paying for a new stadium, Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a fellow Democrat, has said. He left it up to the municipalities involved to decide what investment they may want to make. Some state lawmakers, meanwhile, have been downright hostile to the idea of providing corporate welfare for the deal. One proposed resolution would prevent the state from using taxpayer money to build new professional sports stadiums.

As an alternate source of funding, the NFL has provided partial financing to other teams building new homes. Currently, Forbes estimates the value of the Bears franchise at $4 billion, seventh in the league. In every case, the value of franchises like the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots has skyrocketed after they built their own stadiums in the suburbs, sold seat licenses and naming rights, and developed surrounding property.

David Swindell, director of the Center for Urban Innovation at Arizona State University, has studied sports stadium financing, and worked with teams including the Indianapolis Colts and, currently, the Arizona Coyotes hockey team.

Swindell is a sports fan, but describes professional sports leagues as “cartels” that sometimes try to “extort” cities into paying for their stadiums.

“From an economic perspective, it’s a dud,” he said. “If Chicago loses the Bears, its economy will not know it. It’s just a blip.”

Sports teams do have cultural value and civic prestige that people may be willing to pay for, he said, but it belongs to the region, rather than just the city.

“That’s why before public dollars are invested,” he said, “I’d strongly urge a referendum, or at least a public-opinion poll.”

Tribune reporters Gregory Pratt and Dan Petrella contributed.

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