'Think big': Elk Grove mayor rooting for Arlington Heights to get Bears stadium deal done
The mayor of the suburban town where the Chicago Bears last explored moving says Arlington Heights officials should "think big" and seal the deal to get the NFL franchise to finally move to Arlington Park.
Craig Johnson, the longest-serving mayor of Elk Grove Village, was barely in office for a few months in 1997 when the Bears came calling. Money troubles eventually scuttled the proposal for a $300 million privately financed stadium in 1999, and led to a renovation of Soldier Field that ultimately cost more than double the Elk Grove plan.
The Bears now remain locked into a long-term lease at the Chicago Park District-owned lakefront stadium through 2033.
Johnson said not getting the Bears deal done is the biggest regret of his political career. He said the next longest-tenured Elk Grove mayor, Charles Zettek, told him the same thing after George Halas visited the very same site, the former Busse farm, in 1975. (Papa Bear also eyed Arlington Park right around the same time.)
"Two mayors for 47 years in the community right next door to Arlington Heights are saying their biggest regret ever was not getting the Bears done," Johnson said. "All I would tell Mayor (Tom) Hayes is: don't miss this opportunity."
That opportunity presented itself when Bears president and CEO Ted Phillips called Hayes June 17 to say the organization had made an offer to buy the racetrack property from owner Churchill Downs Inc.
Johnson said he envies the position Arlington Heights officials are in.
The sprawling Arlington Park site is 326 acres; Busse farm -- now the Elk Grove Technology Park that will soon be home to a Microsoft data center -- was 85 acres. The racetrack property is so spacious that there's room for two professional sports teams, Johnson said.
"I wouldn't just be looking at the Bears, but also the team on the South Side of Chicago," Johnson said, referring to the White Sox. "They can marry the stadiums together. They can share parking. Parking is the biggest waste of money in a stadium."
He envisions a year-round sports facility with a retractable roof that could be used for not only 10 football games a year, but also host Super Bowls, Final Four basketball tournaments, concerts and other events.
Johnson also recommends Arlington Heights assemble a team of experts familiar with stadium redevelopment projects, as Elk Grove did in the late 1990s during a year-and-a-half of discussions and planning with the Bears.
He argues the Arlington Park site would provide ease of accessibility -- near expressways and a Metra stop -- for the large number of Bears fans who live nearby. During earlier talks over the team relocating, Johnson said then-team President and CEO Michael McCaskey told him Elk Grove Village was the exact bull's-eye on the map of where Bears fans lived.
"It's not the city of Chicago, it's the Northwest and North suburbs that's the heart of the fanbase," Johnson declared. "It is a pain in the you-know-what to get to a Bears game."
But many still want the Bears to play on the lakefront, including Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who told the Daily Herald last week he's enjoyed watching games at Soldier Field his whole adult life, and hopes "that I'll be able to continue to do that." He also refused to commit to state funding for a new suburban stadium.
Earlier, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot declared that she's committed to keeping the "Chicago" in Chicago Bears, echoing the pronouncements of two predecessors by the name of Richard Daley before her.
It's not the first time the opinionated Elk Grove mayor has been on the other side of a city-versus-suburbs debate with Chicago's City Hall. In fact, negotiations for a Bears stadium in Elk Grove came at the same time as the bitter battle over O'Hare expansion, with Johnson leading the primary opposition against the younger Daley.
And it may have ultimately sullied the chances of securing state financing for a stadium in Elk Grove.
"We were at the height of the airport wars. We pissed off a lot of state reps and senators who had bought into O'Hare expansion," Johnson said. "At the time, we were the evil empire."
Now with decades of political experience under his belt, Johnson has the contacts and knowledge of the inner workings of government that he didn't have two dozen years ago. He believes if the same scenario presented itself today, he could make the Bears deal happen.
But now he's rooting for Arlington Heights to get it done.
"I would be gaga if the Bears could go to Arlington Heights," Johnson said. "That would be good for the Northwest suburbs. It will help Elk Grove ... It would be good for all of us in the area."