Bears pitch $3.2B stadium plan, but Pritzker still ‘skeptical’ despite team’s $2B pledge

Bears pitch $3.2B stadium plan, but Pritzker still ‘skeptical’ despite team’s $2B pledge

By DILPREET RAJU
& JERRY NOWICKI
Capitol News Illinois
news@capitolnewsillinois.com

The Chicago Bears laid out a $3.2 billion plan for a new domed stadium on Chicago’s lakefront on Wednesday afternoon, painting pictures of future Super Bowls and other major public events while pinning their hopes on yet-to-be-had conversations with the governor and lawmakers. 

The Bears – accompanied by Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson at a Wednesday news conference – proposed a public-private partnership through which the Bears lease the stadium from the Chicago Park District. While the team would put up over $2 billion of the $3.2 billion needed to build the stadium, it’s also seeking $1.5 billion in infrastructure support over several years to realize its vision for a multi-use public park space on Chicago’s lakefront Museum Campus. 

Chicago Bears president and CEO Kevin Warren said the $2 billion committed by the Bears would be the largest private investment in Chicago history. He also said a new stadium can provide thousands of temporary and long-term jobs for Chicagoans. Warren joined the Bears in early 2023 after previously brokering a deal to bring the Minnesota Vikings a new stadium with a public-private partnership in Minneapolis.

“Look around Chicago, I know the mayor is doing all that he can with his leadership to lean in to get economic development going,” Warren said. “We want to be that catalyst.”

Despite that major commitment, Bears executives sought to fill an estimated $900 million “gap” through state funding via a bond from the Illinois Sports Facility Authority, a state agency created in the 1980s to finance new sports stadiums. The team also proposed using the city’s existing hotel tax and restructuring ISFA’s current debt over a 40-year period. 

While the proposal represents the largest private commitment of any of the recent pushes by professional sports teams for a new stadium yet, it was quickly met with skepticism by Gov. JB Pritzker, who was at a concurrent news conference at Loyola University Chicago.

“I’m highly skeptical of the proposal that’s been made and I believe strongly that this is not a high priority for legislators, and certainly not for me when I compare it to all the other things,” Pritzker said.

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson and Chicago Bears Chairman George McCaskey pose together after announcing the Bears are seeking to build a new stadium. Johnson said he supports the plan as Gov. JB Pritzker and others raised concern over use of public dollars. (Capitol News Illinois photo by Dilpreet Raju)

The governor downplayed the competing news conferences. He’d scheduled his in advance to highlight health insurance reforms that recently cleared the House with his support. The Bears’ announcement was scheduled within the past two days.

Part of the proposal includes developing about 15 acres of recreational park space for public use and more stadium vendor businesses owned by women and people of color. Johnson hailed the project for upholding his “criteria for any new development project.”

“We require real private investment, real public use and real economic participation for the entire city,” he said.

He noted no new taxes would be imposed on Chicago residents and the city can expect “increased tax revenue from this investment, expanded public recreation, stronger economic growth for the entire city of Chicago for generations to come.” 

Team leaders claimed in their presentation that the stadium would create over 40,000 construction jobs and over 4,000 permanent jobs. 

The Bears’ presentation noted the organization was seeking about $1.5 billion in three phases of infrastructure investment that could come “at the state level, at the potentially federal level, potentially at the city level,” according to Warren, who gave no specifics.

Kevin Warren, president and CEO of the Chicago Bears, waits to walk on stage at the Bears’ stadium announcement on Wednesday. (Capitol News Illinois photo by Dilpreet Raju)

Karen Murphy, the team’s executive vice president of stadium development and chief operating officer, said that includes $325 million in transportation, roadway and utility improvements that would be needed to open the stadium.

The remaining funding – at least $1.1 billion – would come over a period of at least five years. That could include $510 million in a second phase of construction for things such as parking upgrades and building surrounding parks and ballfields, followed by $665 million for further attractions and transportation improvements in a third phase. Bears representatives said those estimates are subject to change. 

Pritzker mentioned “higher priorities for the state” than building a football stadium, including his $4.4 million proposed investment in birth equity centers to create a statewide plan and distribute building grants. And he noted Missouri voters rejected a stadium funding plan for the reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs and for the Kansas City Royals baseball team.

“The problem is that the offer that they’ve made just isn’t one that I think the taxpayers are interested in getting engaged in,” Pritzker said of the proposal, later adding, “We’ve seen this fail over and over across the United States.” 

House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, who attended the governor’s news conference at Loyola, said he gave Warren a blunt assessment when they recently met privately.

“If we were to put this issue on the board for a vote right now, it would fail and it would fail miserably. There is no environment for something like this today,” he said.

Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, also expressed skepticism in a statement.

“At first glance, more than $2 billion in private funding is better than zero and a more credible opening offer,” he said. “But there’s an obvious, substantial gap remaining, and I echo the governor’s skepticism.”

As for the bonding authority sought by the Bears, Pritzker noted three pro sports teams are seeking money through the ISFA for a new stadium – the Bears, the Chicago White Sox baseball team and the Chicago Red Stars women’s soccer team.

“And this is one team that is offering to take all of the tax revenue for their stadium and there apparently is nothing left over for the other two teams,” Pritzker said.

While Pritzker had not been briefed on the proposal prior to Wednesday’s news conference, Warren said team representatives “look forward to having some detailed conversations with the state here in the near future.”

“Today was the first day that we have been able to publicly roll out our plan,” he said. “It’s very difficult for someone to say they’re against this and we just presented it, so we look forward to having more conversations with individuals in Springfield.”

When pressed by media at the Loyola event as to whether there was a “path” for him to support a subsidy plan, Pritzker responded “sure,” but with a caveat.

“This has got to be a lot better for taxpayers than what they put forward. That’s all I’m saying,” he added.

 

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

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