After months of being laser-focused on Arlington Heights as their future home, the Bears altered course Friday when they met with representatives from Naperville about a potential new stadium in the west suburb.
The Bears’ about-face isn’t all that unexpected. Getting a new NFL stadium built is a long road filled with peaks, valleys, and countless deals between varying groups.
Still, the bigger question remains: How did we get here, and what comes next?
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."
However, the Bears re-iterated their stance that the $197.2 million purchase does not ensure they will develop the land.
"Finalizing the purchase does not guarantee the land will be developed, but it is an important next step in our ongoing evaluation of the opportunity," the team said in a letter on Feb. 15. "There is still a tremendous amount of due diligence work to be done to determine if constructing an enclosed state-of-the-art stadium and multi-purpose entertainment district is feasible."
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 change of course
The Bears have said all along that they require two things to move forward with the plan to build in Arlington Heights. The first is public funding for the infrastructure of the surrounding development and the second is property tax certainty.
That second part has created an issue that the Bears now say has put their future in Arlington Heights “at risk” and had them meet with representatives from Naperville on Friday.
So, what’s the deal with the taxes?
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 reached a settlement at $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 come to an agreement.
That $95 million number is the reason the Bears have started to look elsewhere, according to a team statement released Friday.
“The Chicago Bears goal of building the largest single development project in Illinois history led by billions of dollars in private capital investment, and the jobs and economic benefits generated, is at risk in Arlington Heights. The stadium-based project remains broadly popular in Arlington Heights, Chicagoland and the state. However, the property’s original assessment at five times the 2021 tax value, and the recent settlement with Churchill Downs for 2022 being three times higher, fails to reflect the property is not operational and not commercially viable in its current state. We will continue the ongoing demolition activity and work toward a path forward in Arlington Heights, but it is no longer our singular focus. It is our responsibility to listen to other municipalities in Chicagoland about potential locations that can deliver on this transformational opportunity for our fans, our club and the State of Illinois.”
What Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s office said
"Our office’s mission is to assess property based on market value," a spokesperson for the Cook County Assessor's office said Friday. "The 2022 assessment of the former Arlington Racecourse site is consistent with both the 2023 purchase price of the property and the price per square foot of other similarly sized land in the area. The facts speak for themselves."
Meeting with Naperville
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."
It is still unclear where Naperville hopes to put the stadium.
What Arlington Heights said
"It wasn't totally unexpected and so we appreciate the heads up ... this is just part of their due diligence and exploring all options," Arlington Heights mayor Tom Hayes told NBC 5. "I would do the same as a business owner myself, I would do the same as a mayor of another community if I have property in my town that could hold an NFL stadium. And so, everybody is looking out for their best interest, but I'm confident that in the end, Arlington Heights will be determined to be the best piece of property for the Bears stadium for the next 50 years or more."
"There are still hurdles to overcome with respect to the Arlington Park property," he continued. "The tax assessment for the next two years, obviously, is the initial hurdle. And once that's resolved, and we're going to do all we can to encourage a settlement or resolution of that issue, then I expect we'll move forward and see some more definite plans from the Bears."
Could the Bears move to Naperville?
It's not inconceivable, but it still feels unlikely.
What makes the Arlington Heights property so attractive is the size (326 acres) and proximity to public transportation and the highway. Is there anything that checks those boxes in Naperville?
I would say it's unlikely, but we won't be able to know for sure until we know the proposed location(s).
During the final days of the spring legislative session, a plan appeared that would freeze the property tax for 40 years for the Arlington Heights stadium and create a $3 admission tax on all events held at the stadium. The measure would also set up a committee of state and local officials that will negotiate an annual sum of money the Bears must pay the surrounding local taxing communities to offset the loss of revenue from the frozen property taxes.
The bill would also have a 3 percent surcharge on sports betting revenue that would be split to help the communities pay for infrastructure.
The bill got its first hearing in Springfield on May 17 but has been punted to the fall session.
What happens next?
The Bears will likely continue to talk to Naperville and other municipalities about a potential new stadium while they try to find common ground on the tax assessment at Arlington Heights.
Warren was hired in large part due to his experience with helping get U.S. Bank Stadium in Minnesota built.
During his introductory press conference in January, Warren addressed the challenge of dealing with the politics in Illinois.
“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.”
Now it's up to Warren, the Bears, and the politicians in Illinois to find a way to make a deal that everyone can stomach. But politics can move at a glacial pace, so this process is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.