‘It’s complicated’: Why lobbyists think Bears could be back to Arlington if bid for lakefront stadium fails

Amid the yearlong property tax dispute at Arlington Park, the Bears also face a series of legal, financial and political hurdles to building a new stadium on the Chicago lakefront, two lobbyists for three Arlington Heights-area school districts said.

John Dunn and Matt Glavin of Cozen O’Connor Public Strategies, the firm hired by the school districts last year, have met with political leaders and fellow lobbyists for the NFL franchise as the team navigates the corridors of the state Capitol in its latest bid for public subsidies.

“If the Bears can get it done in Chicago, I think they’ll try to do it. If they can’t get it done in Chicago, this is just me guessing, I think they’re going to be right back here (in Arlington Heights),” said Dunn, who was former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s director of intergovernmental affairs. “They’re shopping for the best deal they can get, like any other business.”

John Dunn

The Bears have cited the higher reassessment at their 326-acre former racetrack property that led them to explore other possible stadium sites — namely the recent shift back to the lakefront.

But the lobbyists for Northwest Suburban High School District 214, Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 and Palatine Township Elementary District 15 — much like the superintendents and attorneys on their side of the bargaining table — dispute that the team’s renewed focus on the lakefront is the result of the property tax issue in Arlington Heights.

“I do not believe that the holdup of getting the Bears to come to Arlington Heights is $3 million spread over two years in property taxes,” said Glavin, a one-time staffer of former Gov. Pat Quinn and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin. “There are a lot of other issues at play. And we’re cognizant of not extending too much to the Bears only for them to use that to go to the city of Chicago and ask for more there.”

Matt Glavin

Dunn and Glavin spoke last week during school board meetings in districts 214 and 15.

Among the hurdles discussed: the tepid response so far in Springfield to the Bears’ ask for at least $1 billion in public funds for infrastructure work at the Museum Campus. The team says it would commit $2 billion in private funds for a publicly owned stadium on the south parking lot of Soldier Field.

The Bears are seeking the same pot of money as Chicago White Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, who publicly lobbied lawmakers in February for an extension of Illinois Sports Facilities Authority bonds, backed by the 2% Chicago hotel tax. It’s among the financing mechanisms the Sox are floating to help bankroll a new ballpark at The 78 redevelopment in the South Loop.

But state Senate President Don Harmon told the teams to work together on a single financing proposal. Last week, Harmon told the Illinois Chamber of Commerce that there isn’t a big appetite among legislators to publicly fund new professional sports stadiums, Glavin noted.

State Senate President Don Harmon, from left, and Gov. J.B. Pritzker have so far been reluctant to endorse public financing of new stadiums for the Bears and White Sox. Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register

Dunn added that Gov. J.B. Pritzker also hasn’t shown an interest “in jumping on a public financing bandwagon.”

That current attitude among lawmakers represents a shift over the last 25 to 30 years, when stadium deals were controversial, but still relatively common, Dunn said.

So far, the Bears haven’t formally filed legislation, but there’s been “a lot of discussion and rumors,” he said.

The Bears and Sox have shown an urgency to get something done in the current spring legislative session, which runs through May 24. But Dunn said there are also legislators who have questioned the rush.

Even if the Bears secure legislative approval, their vision of a new stadium on the lakefront could run into legal obstacles. Chicago’s Lakefront Protection Ordinance, which mirrors a public trust doctrine, says anything built on the lakefront has to be for a public use. And there’s been lawsuits over the proposed George Lucas museum and the Bears’ renovation of Soldier Field, the lobbyists noted.

“This doesn’t mean that the Bears couldn’t find a way to build on the lakefront … but it’s complicated,” Glavin said.

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