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Chicago Bears In Arlington Heights? It's A Definite Maybe, And Here's What The Mixed-Use Might Look Like

Speaking at the first public meeting about a possible new stadium for the Chicago Bears in suburban Arlington Heights on Thursday, Bears Chairman George Halas McCaskey ruled out sharing many details about a potential stadium itself — and stressed that the acquisition of the site isn't a done deal yet.

Arlington International Racecourse

"We are at the very beginning of the process to explore what might be possible at the Arlington Park site, and there are still many unknowns," he said. "We have a long way to go."

One detail that the Bears were willing to share about the stadium was that it will be enclosed to better handle the weather. That got a mild round of applause from the audience, which partly filled a high school auditorium in Arlington Heights.

McCaskey and the other panelists shed additional light on the mixed-use project that might also be developed adjacent to a stadium. 

"Our focus tonight is the master plan for the entire site," McCaskey said, stressing again that a new stadium is not final.

He soon turned the presentation over to members of a group hired by the Bears to do preliminary work — including speakers from master-planner Hart Howerton and transportation and engineering specialists Kimley-Horn. The team's real estate adviser is JLL.

Earlier this week, the team released a set of renderings depicting what the mixed-use development might look like on the 326-acre site now occupied by the shuttered Arlington International Racecourse.

So far, preliminary plans for the site include a larger mixed-use transit-oriented development that includes retail, apartments, office and entertainment space — all connected across the Salt Creek, a major greenway in other parts of Cook and Du Page counties.

The Bears' first public meeting about a new mixed-use development in Arlington Heights, Illinois.

McCaskey reiterated that the team isn't going to ask for public money for the stadium. The mixed-use development might require public funding to bring it to life since it would yield, he said, "significant economic benefits, including jobs and tax revenue." 

Obtaining public funds for U.S. sports stadiums has often been a goal of private team owners, but in recent decades that route has been met with increasingly skeptical taxpayers who are saying no to subsidizing new sports venues with public funds. 

Part of the reason is that a growing body of research indicates that major sports developments often don't bring enough economic benefit to justify the use of public funds. 

"I think there are very few — perhaps zero — examples of expenditures on sports stadiums being a good deal in raw economic terms," Davidson College economics professor Fred Smith said in 2020. "Some are worse than others."

The recently completed SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, the home of the LA Rams and Chargers, cost almost $5B, but the mega-stadium was financed privately. On the other hand, the $2B Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, now home to the NFL's Raiders, was partly funded via a special hotel tax to the tune of $750M.

Site components of a possible Bears development in Arlington Heights.

The Bears have been in the city of Chicago in one place or another for 100 years.

Originally the team was a company football team for Decatur, Illinois-based A.E. Staley Co., a corn starch products specialist, formed in 1919. The team's current mascot, Staley da Bear, is an homage to its origins.

For the first 50 years of its existence as an NFL team, the Bears played at Wrigley Field on the north side of Chicago. In 1970, the team moved to Soldier Field in downtown Chicago, which was originally developed in 1924. 

The possible move to Arlington Heights, a northwest suburb of about 77,000, isn't the first time that the Bears have considered a move out of Chicago. 

McCaskey said that the team wasn't actively looking for a new home when the owner of the closed racetrack approached the Bears, looking to sell the site.

"Our pursuit of a home specific to the Bears started with my grandfather, George Hallas, and in fact in the 1970s, he had his eye on the very same site," McCaskey said. 

In the 1990s, the team was poised to move to a new development in northwest Indiana, but the local government nixed the idea.

The Bears' "Preliminary Illustrative Master Plan Vision" for the Arlington Heights site

Early in the 21st century, the Chicago Park District, which owns Soldier Field, redeveloped the stadium at considerable cost — $432M in tax money and $200M from the team — with a result that was widely criticized.

Even so, McCaskey said the Bears weren't actively looking for a new home. Rather, the owners of the shuttered stadium approached the team about buying the site.

Last year, the Bears inked a deal with the owner of Arlington International Racecourse, Churchill Downs Inc., to acquire the property for $197.2M, though the sale hasn't closed yet.

In any event, the redevelopment of the site will be a long-term prospect, since the Bears' lease at Soldier Field runs until 2033. What would happen to the city stadium after that is unclear — though Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the city has “got plan B, plan C and others in the works" if the Bears leave.