Pride and joy of Illinois? Leading state business group makes case for Bears tax break


As a draft of legislation that would give the Chicago Bears a massive property tax break at Arlington Park emerges in Springfield, the NFL franchise has a major backer in its corner.

Illinois Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Todd Maisch's lobbying pitch to legislators is practically a version of the "Bear Down, Chicago Bears" fight song, which famously proclaims the team as the "pride and joy of Illinois."

"They deserve their place in front of the legislature. They're a huge economic driver and a source of pride for the state. So they deserve everything they can get," said Maisch, whose organization is pushing a bill that would create a new economic incentive program that the Bears and big developers could tap to pay less than the regular amount of property taxes on a given site.

Though the chamber's support of the proposed Payments in Lieu of Taxes financing mechanism would suggest at least implicit support of a Bears' suburban relocation, Maisch said he's not taking sides between Arlington Heights and Chicago.

"We think it's really, really important that the Bears stay in the state of Illinois, and there's no reason they can't be here. I would love it if they could find a way to work it out with the city of Chicago, but it doesn't sound like that's going to happen," Maisch said. "It's gonna be difficult. It's gonna be messy. Let's be honest."

The state's leading business advocacy organization and the Bears are leading a coalition in support of the so-called PILOT financing tool that would allow developers of "mega projects" - those worth at least $500 million - to make negotiated payments to local taxing bodies instead of the full amount of property taxes. Others who have signed onto the plan are the Illinois Road & Transportation Builders Association and Northwest Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

The coalition released a draft of the legislation, but it hasn't yet identified a bill sponsor.

It comes as a new term for the General Assembly has begun and the Bears prepare to seal the deal in the coming weeks on a proposed $197.2 million purchase of the 326-acre racetrack property in Arlington Heights.

But the team's scheduled closing with Churchill Downs Inc. is just one piece of its ongoing due diligence process that also includes obtaining the necessary government approvals for its proposed $5 billion stadium and mixed-use redevelopment - and figuring out a way to pay for it all - before the first kickoff that could be at least a decade away.

While the club has pledged to privately finance construction of the stadium itself, Bears brass are seeking public help for infrastructure costs on a sprawling site they've envisioned as a "365-day-a-year entertainment district."

"As we have said publicly, property tax certainty is necessary for the Arlington Park project to move forward. We continue to do our due diligence on how that can be accomplished," Bears spokesman Scott Hagel said in a statement. "We, and many other developers and organizations, support mechanisms like the mega project PILOT because it provides a negotiated payment to local taxing bodies that would exceed the revenue they currently receive from the property while providing tax certainty for the developer. This tool is currently used in many other states and would be valuable to make Illinois more competitive in attracting and retaining mega projects that create thousands of jobs and economic opportunities across our state."

Under the draft legislation, big redevelopments like the Bears' Arlington Park project would be eligible for an assessment freeze of 23 years, with the possibility of a 17-year extension. Instead of paying more taxes as the property grows in value, the Bears would make annual payments that are negotiated in an incentive agreement with Arlington Heights.

Those payments, either fixed or subject to adjustment, would be distributed by the village to other local taxing districts at percentages equal to their proportional share of property taxes.

The amounts and terms of the deal would be considered at a public hearing at village hall before the village board takes a vote, but the other taxing bodies, including schools, wouldn't get a seat at the negotiating table.

Supporters say the arrangement wouldn't lead to an increase in local property taxes.

Local governments "don't have to raise taxes because they're getting all the taxes that are the same already," said Christian Beaudoin, a researcher and marketing head at Chicago-based real estate brokerage firm Jones Lang LaSalle, which is advising the Bears on the stadium project. "Simply, there's an offset on taxes that would be paid on the new parcel. So everyone's kind of made whole from what they have before. There's just a new parcel that has higher value. Those taxes are being reduced."

Beaudoin didn't provide an estimate of how much the Bears could stand to save over the course of the incentive.

Such property tax offset programs - whether called PILOT, PILT or something else - are used in 35 other states, he said. Most commonly, the programs have been used as incentives for large electric vehicle plants, battery factories and other manufacturers.

But an NFL team or mixed-use development?

"Not that I'm personally aware of," Beaudoin said. "I have not seen this used for a mixed-use development."

That's part of what could make PILOT a tough sell in Springfield, where there's already been resistance to state financial help.

Inserted into a bill creating a $400 million large business attraction fund earlier this month was language barring "economic incentives to a professional sports organization that moves its operations from one location in the state to another location in the state."

But Bears backers such as Maisch plan to make an economic case to skeptical legislators.

"The legislature will decide what's the appropriate balance," Maisch said. "But the Bears are a huge asset to the state of Illinois and they deserve every opportunity to make their case and say that we want to be in Illinois, we want to have this economic development asset that will exist for the next 50 years probably. And give us our fair shot at convincing the legislature this is a really good idea."

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Todd Maisch
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