'Just pretty pictures': Experts rate competing visions for Bears stadium, but both hinge on money
Colorful architectural renderings, conceptual master plans, PowerPoints and even a computer-generated video were among the eye-catching public presentations of two competing visions for the Chicago Bears' future home at either a re-imagined Soldier Field or a redeveloped Arlington Park.
But experts who have advised NFL teams and towns on stadium projects say the glossy plans for either location mean little if the Bears can't afford it -- or get the government to chip in.
"When it comes right down to it there are three key factors," said Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports marketing consultant. "Number one, what are the economics? Number two, controlling your own destiny versus being a tenant in a building. Number three, what's best for the fans? And not necessarily in that order. But those are the three."
Release of the two proposals bookended the Chicago Bears season. The first came during a community meeting in Arlington Heights in September, when Bears team brass and their consultants unveiled plans for a $5 billion stadium and adjoining mixed-use district on the 326-acre shuttered racetrack site. Stadium developer Bob Dunn, who is advising Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, released more details of his project -- and a Bill Kurtis-narrated video that virtually flies through a domed Soldier Field -- last Sunday as part of a $2.2 billion renovation plan.
"Dunn's a serious guy, but he has got to know from his experience that pretty pictures without money behind it -- without a financing plan -- is pretty much just pretty pictures," said Ganis, the principal of Sportscorp.
Dunn, whose Landmark Development firm has built new or renovated NFL stadiums in Minneapolis, Detroit and Green Bay, has estimated his proposal would save the Bears at least $1 billion over the cost of starting from scratch in Arlington Heights. And he suggested the team and city could renegotiate revenue-sharing deals over parking, concessions and sponsorships.
But in Arlington Heights, the Bears would have full ownership control of the property and the many revenue-generating ancillary features they've proposed there: restaurants, stores, offices, a hotel, a performance venue, a fitness center and residences. Under its lease with the Chicago Park District for Soldier Field, the team has a smaller share of those revenues controlled by the city.
"When you take the revenue side into account, the Bears will be, I believe, far better off in Arlington Heights," said Ganis, who has advised other NFL teams on stadium financing but isn't involved in the Bears project. "Now, that being said, I'm making a couple of assumptions here: that the government is involved in traditional government activities -- infrastructure, transportation -- things that governments would typically do for any business that is relocating and making a multibillion-dollar investment in their community."
The Bears have made that ask -- at least, informally -- for public funds that would pay for roads, sewers, stormwater and utilities, while vowing to privately finance the stadium and buildings within the mixed-use development. But so far, there's been resistance to providing any subsidies for a Bears suburban relocation.
That opposition, particularly on the state level, grew in recent days. Inserted into a bill creating a $400 million large-business attraction fund was a ban on "economic incentives to a professional sports organization that moves its operations from one location in the state to another location in the state."
"I don't see the Bears jumping in, saying, 'Oh gee, that sounds wonderful, put us down for $2 billion,' or Arlington Heights saying, 'Oh, wow, that's wonderful, yeah, we will chip in,' or Lori Lightfoot or J.B. Pritzker," said Allen Sanderson, a sports economist and professor at the University of Chicago who opposes public subsidies for stadiums. "I'm not seeing where anybody's writing checks yet, or prepared to write checks."
Sanderson was one of the 23 civic and business leaders appointed to Lightfoot's Museum Campus Working Group, which released its initial report and recommendations in July that included Dunn's idea to enclose Soldier Field and add more amenities.
But Sanderson says he doesn't really have a preference for where the Bears play; his ideal was a plan he favored some two decades ago that would have relocated them next to Comiskey Park. He's skeptical about the payoff of economic benefits from football stadiums.
"I've often said that there are two things that you really don't want to put on a valuable piece of real estate: one of them is a cemetery, and the other is a football stadium. After that, everything's negotiable," Sanderson said. "But basically cemeteries and football stadiums are closed all the time. And nobody's there."
Ganis, on the other hand, is very much a cheerleader for the Arlington Heights relocation. He argues such a site doesn't come along often, it would have far superior transportation access, and it would give the Bears the ownership control they've long sought. He also encouraged various levels of government -- including the state, county and village -- to help out.
"There will be a multibillion-dollar private investment that will bring money, events, jobs to Arlington Heights that will likely continue to benefit the community for many decades to come," Ganis said. "This won't be a 20-year-type thing. Once the Bears make the investment themselves, you're probably looking at being 50 years, two generations. This is something that is transformational in a positive way that will last for a very long time."