It will be an extra busy offseason for the Bears this summer. They hired an entirely new offensive coaching staff, they have to decide between keeping Justin Fields or drafting a new quarterback, and they have free agency and the NFL draft to execute.
But one storyline has continued to follow the Bears. How will the organization's stadium desires unfold?
Crain's Chicago Business recently reported that the Bears are pivoting off the property they own in Arlington Heights, shifting their focus to the South Lot at Soldier Field for their next stadium.
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Here are the major points from the Bears' arduous stadium journey.
What has happened
On Feb. 15, the Bears released a letter saying they closed on the purchase of the 326-acre plot of land in Arlington Heights and the Arlington Park property "to secure the potential of beginning a new and exciting chapter for the Bears, our fans, the Chicagoland community, and the State of Illinois."
The Bears first put a purchase agreement on the property in September of 2021. One year later, the Bears unveiled early plans to build a fully enclosed dome stadium on the property as well as a multi-purpose entertainment, commercial/retail, and housing district.
The Bears have said from the start of the process that they will fully fund the construction of the stadium, which is expected to cost between $2 and $3 billion. However, the team has said multiple times it will need help with the development of the other areas.
“We have publicly stated and repeat here again: If we construct a state-of-the-art stadium, we will not seek taxpayer funds locally or otherwise for the structure. If we proceed, however, this project would require assistance to ensure feasibility, including our securing property tax certainty and support for infrastructure commensurate with the public benefits the project will yield to the region,” the Bears said in a statement.
“For the development to move forward, and for this effort to be financially feasible, a public-private partnership addressing predictable taxes and necessary infrastructure funding for public uses is essential. Public funds for infrastructure will provide regional improvements such as roads for better traffic flow and water drainage for residents throughout the area.”
The Bears have said numerous times that the purchase and development of the Arlington Heights property was their sole focus as it pertains to a new stadium.
The Bears’ lease with Soldier Field is slated to end in 2033.
Tax issues cause a change of course
The Bears have mentioned since the beginning they will need assistance with the infrastructure and property tax certainty. They seemingly lost sight of the latter over the summer.
The property was previously valued at $33 million by Cook County. However, during a triennial reassessment, Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s office placed the value at $197 million. That six-fold spike naturally would send the Bears’ property tax bill through the roof.
Churchill Downs, who was on the hook for the increased tax bill in 2022, filed an appeal 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.
However, that was just a one-year agreement between the two sides. With the Bears now taking over the tax bill, they will have to revisit the issue and try to agree. That $95 million number is why the Bears have started looking elsewhere, according to a team statement released over the summer.
Negotiations over the Chicago Bears’ property tax bill are ongoing, with the fate of an Arlington Heights stadium development in the balance as 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.
Other municipalities make their pitch
With the Bears and Arlington Heights battling over taxes, Naperville Mayor Scott Wehrli sent Bears president Kevin Warren a letter offering Naperville as the potential new home for the Bears.
"The city would welcome the opportunity to review your business needs and our available properties," Wehrli's letter said. "Through prudent planning, Naperville is accessible via our region's major interstates and Metra. We have several available or to-be-available sites that may fit the characteristics you are looking for in your future home."
Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson and Warren have had two separate meetings. Here's their last joint statement.
“Today we met and discussed our shared values and commitment to the City of Chicago, the importance of deep roots and the need for equitable community investment throughout the city. We are both committed to the idea that the city and its major civic institutions must grow and evolve together to meet the needs of the future. We look forward to continuing the dialogue around these shared values.”
Ten days after Naperville attempted to enter the stadium discussion, another suburb tried to throw its hat in the ring. Waukegan Mayor Ann B. Taylor sent the Bears a letter asking them to meet to discuss the opportunities available for the franchise in the suburb.
“We believe that the Monsters of the Midway deserve the opportunity to continue the tradition of playing along the shores of Lake Michigan, with the market opportunity of having a year-round facility capable of hosting other major events, including the Super Bowl, the Final Four, and other events of an international scale," Taylor wrote in her letter.
Aurora is the latest municipality to try their hand at convincing the Bears to come their way.
". . . Welcoming a historic organization such as the Chicago Bears would enhance our bold vision for Aurora and will provide the Chicago Bears with a new home to begin the next phase of your storied history. We invite you to visit our great city to explore the exciting opportunity Aurora can bring to the world-famous Chicago Bears."
Soldier Field South Lot
A report from 670 The Score surfaced in early December that the Bears had begun surveying the viability of Soldier Field's South Lot as a potential new stadium site.
On Friday, Crain's Chicago Business reported the South Lot isn't a tactic to mitigate the ongoing differences between the Bears and their property tax issues with Arlington Heights. Building a stadium on the Soldier Field South Lot is now the "real goal" for the organization.
"Though this game is far from over, multiple sources in government and close to the team tell me building in the central area is not just a lever to extract better tax terms from Arlington Heights, but the real goal," Greg Hinz reported for Crain's.
Negotiations are still ongoing between the Bears and the school districts of Arlington Heights for the Arlington Park property evaluation. But both sides are still $100 million apart, making the idea of them shaking hands on a value in the future hard to believe.
The tax gap, at this point, feels too substantial to bridge and shake hands on. But the Bears still own the nearly $200 million property in Arlington Heights. Should they remain tunnel-visioned on the South Lot, they will need an alternate route for the Arlington Heights property.
Warren told NBC's Peter King he hopes to decide on the location of the stadium within the next year. After that, he's specific about the timeline of the actual construction.
"I'm hopeful that (decision comes) within the next 12 months," Warren said. "I always go by when a shovel goes in the ground. I believe once a shovel goes in the ground, it's probably three years."
The Bears brought in Warren to do exactly that --- plan and build a stadium. He's done it once already. In Minnesota, he helped the Vikings construct the U.S. Bank stadium, one of the most prominent stadium designs in recent history.
He's also not naive to the politics that surround constructing a stadium, especially in Chicago.
“In regard to why I can get it done, one thing I found out, especially with stadium development projects, you have to create what’s the why?” Warren said. “And what’s the why for everyone? It can’t just be, what’s the why for the Chicago Bears, or what’s the why for this group or that group? One of the things I’ll really start thinking is, what’s the why? No matter what constituent group you put in front of me, what’s the why? The more common the why that you have, the more people will understand.
“With stadium development projects, and one of the many things I learned in Minnesota, is you have to create a compelling story of why it makes sense. I just believe at this point in time, where we are in our lifespan in the NFL of the Chicago Bears, that the time is right. I’ll need to study the project and understand and lean on other people, talk with Ted [Phillips] and other folks in the organization to come up with what that why is. But those are things that I love. To be able to walk the project and talk with constituents and groups and come up with why this makes sense. I’m confident with the intellectual talent in this state and in this city and all the people who love the Chicago Bears will be able to come together.”
Remember, the Bears paid a hefty price tag to own the land in Arlington Heights. The idea of selling it or developing it into something that isn't a stadium doesn't seem feasible. But with their focus reportedly shifted to the Soldier Field South Lot, they'll have to figure out another route for their Arlington Heights property.
The Halas/McCaskey family have their money tied up in the Bears, not external interests. Jerry Jones could eat the cost of this land and find a new location at the snap of his fingers. The Bears can't.
Right now, the official stadium location is in flux. It isn't cemented. That'll come soon enough.
For now, enjoy Soldier Field while you can. Because, either way it unfolds, the Bears are likely moving out.