'Bears players have called Lake County their home': Waukegan makes its own pitch to host stadium

With Chicago Bears officials saying their proposal for a new stadium at Arlington Park is “at risk,” yet another city is reaching out to team officials in hopes of luring the NFL franchise to their town.

The latest entry in what's shaping up as a potential bidding war for the team is Waukegan, whose mayor on Monday sent Bears President and CEO Kevin Warren a letter suggesting several sites in the city, including property along Lake Michigan.

“In addition to the availability of land controlled by the City of Waukegan, the city also has excellent transportation infrastructure as Waukegan is located along Interstate 94 and U.S. Route 41, a major stop on Metra's Union Pacific North Line, and is home to Waukegan National Airport,” Mayor Ann B. Taylor's letter states.

Taylor notes that Waukegan's lakefront is just 20 minutes from the Bears' Halas Hall headquarters in Lake Forest and that the team has a long history with the city.

“The city of Waukegan was home to the Bears' winter training facility in the early 1990s,” she wrote. “For generations, Bears players have called Lake County their home, including the neighboring towns of Lake Forest, Lake Bluff, Libertyville, Gurnee, Vernon Hills, Mettawa, and others. Some members of the Bears organization currently live in my neighborhood in Waukegan.”

Taylor's pitch comes less than two weeks after Naperville Mayor Scott Wehrli met with Warren to discuss potential stadium sites in that city.

A Bears spokesman Tuesday referred back to a statement issued at the time of that meeting, in which the team said its newly purchased property at Arlington Park is no longer its “singular focus” as a location for a new stadium. The statement indicates that ongoing disagreements over potential property tax assessments for the 326-acre site played a role in the team's decision to explore other locations.

Despite Taylor's letter, Warren hasn't yet had a sit-down meeting with the Waukegan mayor, as he did in recent weeks with Wehrli and Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson.

Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes said he did not receive notification from the Bears' front office that Waukegan is the latest town to show interest in the club.

“And I don't expect them to notify us of every time somebody tries to reach out to them. It is anticipated. I understand that other communities would possibly do that,” Hayes said. “The Bears can certainly explore all options, but I think ultimately Arlington Park will be determined to be the best option.”

Warren is expected to be back in Arlington Heights June 26 for a community conversation hosted by Touchdown Arlington, a coalition of Arlington Heights business owners who support the Bears' move to town.

Hayes said he was invited to the meeting but won't be attending — not because he doesn't think it isn't a good idea, but because he's trying to remain impartial as the village approval process continues.

The Bears in February closed on the $197 million purchase of the shuttered racetrack from Churchill Downs Inc. and have since released preliminary plans for a potential $5 billion redevelopment of the property highlighted by a domed stadium.

But negotiations over property tax issues have stalled, and discussions over legislation that would give the Bears a massive long-term property tax break are set to go at least into the fall.

Though he requested another meeting, Warren hasn't talked to the superintendents of Northwest Suburban High School District 214, Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 and Palatine Township Elementary District 15 since an April 18 meeting in Rolling Meadows.

Warren called their settlement offer of $7.9 million in annual tax payments the next two years a “nonstarter.” He countered with $4.3 million.

Meanwhile, Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi raised the assessed value of the property from $33.5 million to $197 million earlier this year, which would increase the annual property tax bill from $2.8 million to $16.2 million.

Churchill Downs reached a settlement with the schools for $7.8 million, but what the Bears would pay over the next two years remains in limbo.

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