Bears looking at Naperville now? Team says it's considering sites other than Arlington Park
Team confirms it's considering sites other than former racetrack
The Naperville Bears?
Plans for the Chicago Bears to plant their goal posts in the suburbs took a surprising turn Friday afternoon when Naperville Mayor Scott Wehrli met with team President Kevin Warren to discuss the possibility of building a new NFL stadium in Naperville rather than Arlington Heights.
The meeting between Wehrli and Warren happened despite the team's purchase of the 326 acres at Arlington Park on the western edge of Arlington Heights for $197.2 million. The deal to buy the shuttered racetrack closed in February.
On Friday, the Bears released a statement saying the Arlington Heights project is "at risk" and that the team is now looking at stadium opportunities other than Arlington Park. Part of the reason, the statement reads, is because of continuing disagreements over potential property tax assessments.
Earlier this year, Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi raised the value of the Arlington Park property from $33.5 million to $197 million. That would increase the annual property tax bill from $2.8 million to $16.2 million. The Bears are appealing Kaegi's assessment.
"The stadium-based project remains broadly popular in Arlington Heights, Chicagoland and the state," Scott Hagel, the Bears senior vice president of marketing and communications, said in a statement. "However, the property's original assessment at five times the 2021 tax value, and the recent settlement with Churchill Downs for 2022 being three times higher, fails to reflect the property is not operational and not commercially viable in its current state."
The meeting between Wehrli and Warren comes as demolition work begins at Arlington Park. Arlington Heights officials are waiting for the Bears to submit more detailed plans outlining the organization's vision of a potential $5 billion redevelopment of the Arlington Park site that would be centered around a new, domed stadium.
Saying the team's goal is to build "the largest single development project in Illinois history led by billions of dollars in private capital investment, and the jobs and economic benefits generated," Hagel said the team is doing its due diligence in pursuing options for its future stadium.
NFL experts credit Warren with guiding the construction of the Minnesota Vikings' U.S. Bank Stadium, which opened in 2016. He was hired as the Bears' president in January and officially began the job in April, nearly two years after the team and Arlington Heights officials began discussing stadium possibilities at Arlington Park.
"We will continue the ongoing demolition activity and work toward a path forward in Arlington Heights, but it is no longer our singular focus," Hagel said. "It is our responsibility to listen to other municipalities in Chicagoland about potential locations that can deliver on this transformational opportunity for our fans, our club and the state of Illinois."
Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes acknowledged on Friday the Bears, as a for-profit organization, "should be looking at all their options." But he said the village is "very encouraged" that the Bears have purchased the Arlington Park property.
"We've gotten pretty far down the road in terms of their redevelopment of that site," Hayes said. "I understand there's challenges ahead that still have to be overcome. But I continue to think that the Arlington Park property is a very unique property that would be in the best interest of the Bears for their football stadium for the next 50 years or more."
Team officials on Friday morning gave the village a heads-up about the Naperville meeting, Hayes said.
"I told them at that time that I certainly understood that they have to do their due diligence, and when somebody reaches out to them, they should take the call," Hayes said. "I would do the same. And so, I just trust that Arlington Park property is the best option for the Bears going forward. But we still have a long way to go in terms of making that a reality, and we have to do our due diligence as well in terms of ensuring that it is a win-win for us."
On Friday night, Northwest Suburban High School District 214, Palatine-Schauburg High School District and Palatine Township Elementary District 15 issued a joint statement with a similar sentiment.
"We understand that they (the Bears) need to do what is in the best interest of their business and their ownership, while we need to focus on what is in the best interests of our students and local taxpayers." the statement read.
"We take the Bears at their word when they say they want to pay their fair share in property taxes," the statement continued. "We look forward to seeing the 2023 assessment for the site when it is released by the county assessor later this year. As we have done with Churchill Downs and the 2022 assessment, we are confident we can reach agreement with the Bears on a market-oriented 2023 assessment that factors in the recent arm's-length sale of the property and the anticipated future development."
According to Linda LaCloche, Naperville's director of communications, Wehrli reached out last week to Warren to introduce Naperville "as a thriving community with multiple opportunities for business investment." He sent a letter to Warren, dated May 24, that's termed a formal introduction to the Bears "as you consider or reassess your planned relocation. The city would welcome the opportunity to review your business needs and our available properties."
"With economic development as one of his primary focuses," LaCloche said, "the mayor will continue to highlight Naperville's benefits to businesses throughout Chicagoland and across the country."
LaCloche would not say which specific Naperville properties were discussed for building a stadium. Because the city is void of a large enough parcel of vacant land, an existing developed location likely would need to be razed and redeveloped.
Wehrli wrote to Warren that, as a lifelong Bears fan, he respects the team's decision to build its own stadium as "essential for on-field success and pursuing championships."
The Bears' current home, Soldier Field, is owned and operated by the Chicago Park District. Bears officials have said the arrangement limits the team's ability to maximize its revenue.
This isn't the first time there have been hopes of a Bears move to the suburbs. Through the years, the Bears have considered sites in Hanover Park, Hoffman Estates, Aurora, Elk Grove Village and Waukegan -- plus once before in Arlington Heights.
Wehrli's letter touts Naperville as accessible through major highways, such as the east-west Interstate 88 and the north-south Interstate 355, as well the city's downtown Metra station. There are also Metra stops in nearby Lisle and on Route 59 in Aurora.
The meeting is a major splash for Wehrli, a lifelong Naperville resident who was elected in April and has been mayor for only a month. His letter to Warren stresses the impact an NFL stadium would have on the city.
"We have several available or to-be-available sites that may fit the characteristics you are looking for in your future home," Wehrli wrote to Warren. "Like you, I am new to my role. I pledged to pursue responsible economic development to support Naperville's thriving economy. Being the home of the Chicago Bears would unlock tremendous economic benefits for our community."
• Daily Herald staff writer Katlyn Smith contributed to this report.