What to know about Soldier Field, Arlington Heights move

The Chicago Bears signed a purchase agreement for Arlington International Racecourse in September 2021, a move that takes the team a step closer toward securing property for a new stadium and leaving their longtime home at Soldier Field.

The Bears on June 17, 2021, submitted one of multiple bids to purchase the Arlington Heights property, which Churchill Downs Inc. announced on Feb. 23, 2021, would be up for sale for redevelopment. Churchill Downs announced the sale price was $197.2 million and said it anticipated closing the sale in late 2022 or early 2023.

Soldier Field, which is owned by the Chicago Park District, holds 61,500 fans, the smallest capacity in the NFL. The Bears also would be able to develop the 326-acre property around the stadium with shopping, dining and entertainment.

Here’s what to know about the possible move from Soldier Field, with reaction from City Hall to Arlington Heights.

Village documents obtained by the Tribune show the highest levels of the team’s administration, including Chairman George McCaskey, have been involved in meetings to make the purchase and subsequent construction of a new football stadium happen. The documents showed that the team deposited $125,000 with the village for studies of the stadium proposal, and they also included a former baseball executive’s proposal to add a minor league baseball complex to the site.

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Major stadium news surfaced during this week’s league meetings. The Bills reached an agreement with New York State officials to receive $850 million in public funding to build an open-air stadium adjacent to its current home venue at Highmark Stadium. The estimated cost of that project is $1.35 billion, with team owners committing to a $350 million contribution and an additional $200 million coming through league funding sources.

But even with those developments, Bears chairman George McCaskey insisted that there was little within the Bills’ situation that he found illuminating or helpful toward the Bears’ potential future ventures.

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After initially downplaying taxpayer subsidies for a proposed 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.”

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As the Chicago Bears dive deeper into the possibilities of building a new stadium in Arlington Heights, the team is working with a Kansas City, Kan., architecture firm that designed the Las Vegas Raiders’ new stadium.

A Bears spokesman confirmed the team has hired Manica Architecture as well as CAA Icon and Jones Lang LaSalle as consultants “as part of the due-diligence process on the Arlington Park property.”

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If the Bears dare to dream big about a new stadium in Arlington Heights, they can find inspiration in SoFi Stadium, the new star attraction of the NFL.

The league’s largest and most expensive arena and the site of Sunday’s Super Bowl, SoFi, just outside Los Angeles, is overwhelming fans with its sweeping curves and epic scale. The stadium and its development highlight certain parallels to the Bears’ proposal to buy and redevelop Arlington International Racecourse.

But several key elements make SoFi an unlikely model for the Bears to follow.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot plans to present the Bears with 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, she said in a pair of interviews Friday.

“We’re going to continue to do everything we can to keep the Bears in Chicago,” Lightfoot said on WSCR-AM 670. “We’re working on some plans to present to them that I think will make a very, very compelling financial case as to why it makes an abundance of sense for them to stay in Chicago.”

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With Soldier Field’s future up in the air as the Bears eye potentially greener suburban pastures, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has empaneled a group to recommend ways to improve the lakefront Museum Campus.

The 18-member working group will set out “to reimagine the Museum Campus experience targeting year-round tourism and activation on the Campus,” according to Lightfoot’s office.

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Chairman George McCaskey was careful to note the Bears still are in the exploratory phase of their potential purchase of the former Arlington International Racecourse property.

But he also called the possible new stadium site in Arlington Heights an “outstanding, long-term proposition with high potential for the Bears.”

President and CEO Ted Phillips called the 326-acre Arlington site an “extremely unique property” and said the Bears’ vision is “an entertainment destination with multiple facets to it that I think could really help put Arlington Heights on the map as a destination spot.”

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If the Bears do move, it will be interesting to see how they develop the land: Would they build a domed stadium or one with a retractable roof? Or would they keep it an open-air venue? And what would they do with the surrounding area not used for the stadium?

The Bears have remained tight-lipped about their plans, perhaps because they still are working to complete the deal and need more time to look at all options. And, of course, they likely are considering how much they want to spend on the development.

Here’s a look at the seven newest NFL stadiums — so dream big, Bears fans.

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The Bears sold 26,000 permanent seat licenses, or PSLs, priced between $765 and $10,000 each, to help fund the 2003 renovation of Soldier Field. While many of those seats have since changed hands, thousands of current PSL owners now face the prospect of their investments expiring worthless if the team packs up for the northwest suburbs.

The Soldier Field seat license terminates at “the end of the final home game of the last season in which the team plays home games in the stadium,” according to the Bears’ PSL agreement.

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The McCaskey family that owns the Bears has been tight-lipped about its pursuit of a new home, and the Bears remain a private business enterprise, which leaves many of the questions about how the team might finance a potentially multibillion dollar stadium unanswered for now.

What is more clear is the potential cost to the city of Chicago if its marquee tenant for Soldier Field leaves, and how much the Bears might have to pony up to break their lease with the city.

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After Churchill Downs Inc. announced plans in February to close Arlington International Racecourse and sell one of the most coveted properties in the northwest suburbs, local officials recognized an opportunity.

“We set the stage so that developers and investors would know what we were looking for, and that there were some things that we don’t want,” Charles Witherington-Perkins, the village’s director of planning and community development, recently told the Tribune.

Against that backdrop, the Village Board essentially hung a welcome sign for the Chicago Bears.

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Getting to and from Arlington Heights — and whether it would be better, or worse, than dealing with Soldier Field traffic or the trek on public transit — is yet another layer of the Bears’ potential move to the northwest suburb that has fans sharply divided.

Metra’s Union Pacific Northwest line has two stops in Arlington Heights, one downtown and one at the potential stadium site, but the site is not accessible by other public transit. The suburb offers a chance to avoid driving downtown and worrying about parking, but is farther from many Chicago neighborhoods and other suburbs.

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Now the stakes have been raised, as the Bears’ offer has been accepted and it works to see if it can finalize the deal. We try to answer the important questions around a possible move to the ‘burbs..

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot said her administration continues talking with the Chicago Bears about staying in the city but said the team need “to be more forthcoming about what they want.”

The city will be announcing a group of people who will look at the entire Soldier Field campus to ensure it’s being used effectively. Lightfoot, who called herself a “long-suffering” Bears season ticket holder, said during a Monday morning interview with The Score that she will continue to work to keep the team here.

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When a developer stepped up in the late 1990s with a bold vision for transforming downtown Arlington Heights, a citizens group called the Shadow Project lambasted the proposed 13-story condominium building, fearing the high-rise would cast the heart of their hometown in darkness.

Despite the outcry from residents fretful that the development would destroy the village’s small-town charms, officials gave their blessing to the Arlington Town Square project, which brought 100 luxury condominiums, a six-screen movie theater and dozens of national retailers and restaurants to this northwest suburb straddling the railroad tracks.

Before long, the village’s downtown business district was bustling, its sleepy streets and empty storefronts resurrected by an era of undaunted growth that during the next three decades put Arlington Heights on the map as a prototype for successful transit-oriented development, earning the village a top prize in a national competition.

“It makes sense for the Bears to be interested in coming to Arlington Heights, because we have a very vibrant business and residential community, and this is not a depressed area they’d be coming into that needs to be revived,” said Jon Ridler, executive director of the Arlington Heights Chamber of Commerce.

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The road from Soldier Field to Arlington International Racecourse is 31.2 miles and years in the making, marking it as potentially the longest and biggest scoring drive in Chicago Bears’ history.

A lot has changed in the decades since Chicago last confronted the issue of a new playground for the Bears, before the team settled into a vastly remodeled and reconfigured Soldier Field in 2003 after years of negotiations involving the city and the state.

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Amid the sizzle of brats and burgers on Weber grills and plumes of cigar smoke, something else was burning outside historic Soldier Field on Sunday, days after fans awoke to the news of a possible move away from the 97-year-old stadium.

On the upper Waldron parking deck just south of the stadium, the Bears’ possible move to Arlington Heights was unsurprisingly a hot topic among the hundreds of fan cookouts and makeshift watering holes.

“In the end of the day, (the new proposed site) is not Chicago,” Marlowe Parker said, cigar in hand. “Arlington Heights is Arlington Heights. Are we going to be called them the Arlington Heights Bears?” she asked incredulously. “No! You’re going to be called the Chicago Bears, you should stay here.”

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Chicago’s stadium on the lakefront has hosted a variety of people — football players and circus performers, politicians and civil rights movement activists, observers of religious and cultural milestones, the Rolling Stones and Special Olympics supporters with megaphones — in its almost 100 years.

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With its views of Chicago’s skyline and games enhanced by wind-driven snow, the 97-year-old stadium is as much a part of the Bears identity as tenacious linebackers or underperforming quarterbacks. The team’s allegiance to the lakefront shrine has long been a point of civic pride, giving fans something to brag about even when — especially when — they couldn’t brag about the squad itself.

Yet, seemingly, the storied site can no longer compete with the so-called fan experience marketed by other teams.

Fans, however, were exponentially more understanding and some even expressed a draft day-like optimism that better days are ahead. With a tentative deal unlikely to close before late 2022, they dreamed openly of shorter concessions, easier parking, better tailgating opportunities and a domed stadium that protected them from biting winter winds.

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News of the Chicago Bears’ purchase of the Arlington Heights Racecourse property proves they’re serious about leaving Soldier Field. The sooner, the better, writes Paul Sullivan.

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Die-hard Chicago Bears fan Mayor Lori Lightfoot must be sympathizing with rookie quarterback Justin Fields’ tough day in Cleveland: flee Browns defensive lineman Myles Garrett, only to get knocked to the ground — again — by linebacker Jadeveon Clowney.

The mayor faces a similarly intimidating set of obstacles in her bid to keep the Bears from decamping to Arlington Heights: Come up with a miracle and billions of dollars in taxpayer money to convince them to stay, further hamstringing the city’s finances. Or go down in history as the mayor who lost a charter member of the National Football League to the suburbs.

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Wrigley Field served as the original home venue for the team when it moved to Chicago in 1921 and remained there through 1970. The team won nearly 70% of its home games during that span.

But the Bears were forced to find a new home after the American Football League merged with the National Football League and required stadiums to seat at least 50,000 fans. The team played its last game at Wrigley Field on Dec. 13, 1970, beating the Packers 35-17.

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Hotels, restaurants, bars and other entertainment are natural fits around a football stadium, said Jason Wurtz, executive vice president at commercial real estate firm NAI Hiffman. But the size of the property means it’s likely too big for just one use, and there have to be enough people around to patronize businesses during off days and the off season, he said.

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Thursday that it’s up to Mayor Lori Lightfoot and leaders in northwest suburban Arlington Heights to determine whether local taxpayers should help pay to build a new stadium for the Chicago Bears.

Pritzker did not unequivocally rule out state subsidies for a new stadium, but said no one from the football team had approached him.

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Just days after a farewell fireworks display marked the end of a storied era of thoroughbred horse racing in Arlington Heights, residents woke up Wednesday to the news that the Chicago Bears in a few years could be making the northwest suburb their home.

The move by the Bears is not a done deal. And some in the village might not want to get their hopes too high. About 50 years ago, the Bears floated the idea of moving there.

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A possible state role in the Bears’ potential move from the lakefront to the northwest suburbs has yet to be formally discussed, but any request from the team for financial assistance would likely prove a tough sell as Illinois emerges from the coronavirus pandemic and continues to grapple with chronic fiscal ills.

Democratic state Rep. Kam Buckner, a former University of Illinois football player whose district is home to Soldier Field, called Wednesday’s announcement “extremely disheartening.”

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After almost a century of thoroughbred racing, Arlington International Racecourse in Arlington Heights closed its gates to the sport Saturday for the final time – and the future of the venue remains uncertain.

Racetrack fans, staff and even jockeys collectively agreed it was a sad day at Arlington Park. Horses ran the final turn, fans donned their fancy hats and placed their final bets while staff faced an uncertain future. Many shared the memories of family fun and spectacular fireworks, sunny Saturday afternoons with friends winning big or losing, and the grandeur of a racetrack unlike any other.

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