Just weeks after Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot unveiled a trio of transformative redevelopment schemes for Solider Field, National Football League franchise the Chicago Bears has shared further details about its potential (read: most likely) plans to decamp to a 326-acre mixed-use campus that would rise on the site of the now-closed Arlington International Racecourse facility, formerly Arlington Park, in Chicago’s northwestern suburbs. The Bears have been a core tenant of historic Solider Field since 1971.
Akin in scope and size to Hollywood Park, a ground-up sports and entertainment district near Los Angeles International Airport that was similarly once the site of a historic thoroughbred horse racing track, the proposed redevelopment plan in the the municipality of Arlington Heights will, of course, be anchored by a new purpose-built home for the Bears that would be larger (but maybe not all that much larger) than Solider Field. Back in March, Kansas City–based Manica Architecture was tapped by the Bears to design conceptual plans for a domed stadium at the site. The Bears described the venue as a “best-in-class enclosed stadium, providing Chicagoland with a new home worthy of hosting global events such as the Super Bowl, College Football Playoffs, and Final Four.” (As for Hollywood Park, that burgeoning megadevelopment is home to SoFi Stadium, home field for NFL’s Los Angeles Rams and the Los Angeles Chargers.)
The Bears’ initial vision for Arlington Park was formally revealed via open letter earlier this week ahead of a planned community meeting in Arlington Heights (more on that in a bit). The letter confirmed that a move out of Chicago proper is still very much still on the table although nothing at this juncture is firmly set in stone as the franchise has not yet finalized the purchase of the erstwhile racetrack site. Racetrack owner Churchill Downs Inc. first announced its plans to close and sell the storied, nearly century-old property in early February 2021. The Bears entered a preliminary agreement to buy the racetrack site for $197.2 million that September.
“We remain under contract to purchase the property, but there are conditions that must be met in order to be in a position to close,” the team explained in an open letter published on September 6. “If we do close on the property, it does not guarantee we will develop it.”
“While under contract with the seller of Arlington Park, we will not be discussing or exploring any other alternative stadium sites or other opportunities, including renovations of Soldier Field,” the letter stated.
The bears are owned by the Halas-McCaskey family, with 99-year-old Virginia Halas McCaskey acting as principal owner since 2014. She is the oldest team owner in all of major league sports in the U.S. and the family ownership arrangement is the longest-running in the NFL.
If (“if” being a key word word stressed by the franchise) the Bears decide to close on the property and opt to develop it as “much more than a stadium project,” Arlington Park’s centerpiece stadium would potentially be joined by a transit-oriented, mixed-use district with housing, commercial office space, restaurants and retail, a hotel, large swaths of public parkland, and more. The non-stadium elements, collectively known as the Stadium District, would be located directly southeast of the venue along Route 53. The team clarified that the “long-term project vision for the entire property is an ongoing work-in-progress.”
”If the team does proceed with the purchase of the Arlington property, and if the Bears organization then chooses to proceed with the development of the property, the project will be one of the largest development projects in Illinois state history,” the letter elaborated.
“Team ownership anticipates that the development would generate $16 million annually in tax revenue for the city of Arlington Heights, $9.8 million for Cook County, and $51.3 million for the state of Illinois. The franchise also projected that construction efforts would generate $3.9 billion in labor income to workers along with more than 9,750 long-term jobs and $601 million in annual worker income. As detailed by the Chicago Tribune, team ownership did not disclose specifics as to how these projections were made.
The Tribune also noted that taxpayers might be on the hook for some of the ambitious project, although not for the stadium itself. A poll conducted earlier this summer among 300 registered voters living in Arlington Heights found that a majority (72 percent) of residents support the Bears relocating to town, although only if tax dollars are not used to build the stadium.
“While the Bears will seek no public funding for direct stadium structure construction, given the broad, long-term public benefits of this project, we look forward to partnering with the various governmental bodies to secure additional funding and assistance needed to support the feasibility of the remainder of the development,” the open letter elaborated.
Aside from big bucks generated by a potential naming rights agreement, funding sources for the City of Chicago’s proposed revamp of Solider Field, which is owned by the Chicago Park District and ranks as the oldest and smallest venue in the NFL, are murky. The Bears’ lease at Solider Field runs through 2033 although the team could depart as soon as 2026 while incurring a major penalty. The Bears first eyed Arlington Heights, located roughly 30 miles outside of downtown Chicago and home to about 78,000 people, in 1971 before ultimately settling on Solider Field, which at that point was just shy of 50 years old. The aging stadium was last renovated in 2003 at the cost of $660 million.
Lightfoot still hasn’t given up that hope that the Bears might be enticed to stay in Chicago, noting in press conference held earlier this week that she plans to continue conversations with both the team and the NFL. “As you know, I’m somebody who likes to plan,” the Chicago Sun-Tribune reported her as saying. “So, we’ve got Plan B, Plan C and others in the works as well, if the Bears decide they’re gonna abandon the city of Chicago. I hope they don’t. We’re gonna keep fighting that fight as long as we possibly can.”
An informational meeting will be held this evening from 7 to 9 p.m. at John Hersey High School in Arlington Heights in which the team will further discuss their plans with the larger community. Considering the ongoing chatter around the potential move, it’s safe to assume it will be a packed house.