Would Soldier Field dome entice Bears? Arlington Park stadium remains the focus, team says

A working group appointed by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Thursday unveiled a series of recommended upgrades to Soldier Field - including a dome - in a bid to keep the Chicago Bears from leaving the lakefront for Arlington Heights.

But those changes may not be enticing enough to keep the legendary NFL franchise in the city, and it doesn't appear Lightfoot's initial pitch is changing the team's trajectory toward an eventual move to the Northwest suburbs.

"The only potential project the Chicago Bears are exploring for a new stadium development is Arlington Park," according to a statement from a team spokesman Thursday afternoon. "As part of our mutual agreement with the seller of that property, we are not pursuing alternative stadium deals or sites, including renovations to Soldier Field, while we are under contract."

The Bears inked a $197.2 million purchase agreement with Churchill Downs Inc. last fall, but the deal isn't expected to close until early 2023.

As the organization continues its due diligence and predevelopment activities on the 326-acre former racetrack property, the team "informed the City of Chicago that we intend to honor our contractual commitments," the Bears statement said, referring to the preliminary deal with Churchill.

In the meantime, the team said it remains committed to fulfilling its permit operating agreement at Soldier Field, and is maintaining a strong working relationship with new Chicago Park District General Superintendent Rosa Escareno, her staff and the ASM Global management team.

The Bears have a lease at the park district-owned stadium until 2033, but can leave as soon as 2026 by paying an $84 million penalty.

The proposed Soldier Field improvements revealed Thursday are part of a larger plan to upgrade the entire Museum Campus. Lightfoot formally launched the effort in February when she named 23 civic and business leaders to the working group, chaired by Mesirow Executive Chairman Richard Price.

Their work over the last few months led to Thursday's release of the 51-page Where Worlds Connect document, containing 35 short- and long-term recommendations that would re-imagine the lakefront campus.

Likely the most significant and costly suggestion within the report, the working group suggests the city explore the feasibility of enclosing Soldier Field to better utilize it year-round. The document notes few events are held from January to April because of cold weather.

"Although an enclosed venue is unlikely to attract many more major concerts due to limited touring windows among other reasons, it would negate inconsistent weather conditions and allow Chicago to host coveted one-off events such as the Super Bowl and the NCAA Final Four Championship," the report says.

The study doesn't say how much a dome would cost - though some estimates suggest it could be in the $1 billion range - and leaves open the door to how such an undertaking could be funded.

"Although enclosing Soldier Field would incur significant investment, further analysis is required to fully understand the specific costs, the potential direct and indirect economic impacts, and the full range of potential funding sources available to determine options that are respectful to Chicago taxpayers," officials wrote.

As the last renovation to Soldier Field was nearly two decades ago, the report calls on the city, park district and private sector to "collaborate to transform the visitor experience, improve the stadium's role as an economic engine, and allow it to serve as a cornerstone of the re-imagined Museum Campus."

Among the working group's other recommended upgrades to Soldier Field:

• Expand the concourses, which are among the smallest in the NFL and negatively impact the gameday experience, by way of "creative designs" within the current footprint. Expand concessions, washrooms and retail areas to reduce congestion and wait times. Add digital, interactive wayfinding signage and virtual reality. For example, fans could be greeted and directed by a projection of their favorite player or the team mascot.

• Updating the stadium's current seating configuration - now the smallest in the NFL - is "imperative." That would include new stadium boxes and clubs and nontraditional seating like couches and lounging areas.

• Pursue lucrative sponsorship and naming rights agreements to help offset the cost of renovations. At SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas and MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, such deals have been worth at least $400 million. And similar to VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, an agreement could be "pursued in a way that respects Soldier Field's legacy as a war memorial by keeping Soldier Field in the name of the facility."

• Explore the addition of an in-person betting lounge, pending regulatory and NFL policy changes.

• Add restaurants to the area in and around the stadium to address the scarcity of food and beverage options. Integrate additional attractions to enhance the gameday experience and encourage visitors to explore the campus on non-gamedays.

• Build a Soldier Field visitors center or Bears hall of fame.

• Replace the natural grass surface with synthetic turf to host a greater number of revenue-generating events, including more college and high school football games, concerts and band competitions.

Martin Cabrera, CEO of Cabrera Capital, a Chicago-based financial services firm, served as the athletic facilities lead in Lightfoot's working group.

"The resulting options for Soldier Field should provide not only an exceptional game day experience for fans, but also an accessible destination and entertainment attraction for visitors and all of Chicago," Cabrera said in a statement from the mayor's office.

Lightfoot said the group has provided "a useful framework" to enhance the campus.

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A working group appointed by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot suggests moving the music venue at Northerly Island to the lawn between Soldier Field and the Field Museum. Courtesy of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot's Museum Campus working group suggests expanding public amenities at Soldier Field as a way to encourage year-round use. Courtesy of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
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