Arlington Heights residents give friendly reception to Bears’ stadium pitch

George McCaskey vowed Thursday the Bears would “be good neighbors” with Arlington Heights residents if the team follows through with a plan to build a massive stadium in the northwest suburb — but the chairman cautioned “we will need help” from taxpayers to fulfill their complete vision for the football mecca.

Putting a preliminary price tag of at least $5 billion on the ambitious development slated for the shuttered Arlington International Racecourse, McCaskey noted that most of his family’s wealth is vested in the team — so they’d need some of the costs subsidized to cross the goal line.

“We are not financiers,” McCaskey said during a public meeting hosted by the team at John Hersey High School in Arlington Heights, the Bears’ first direct pitch to residents of their potential new host city.

“A tremendous opportunity is present today. But we will need help to make it a reality,” McCaskey said. He reiterated the team’s announcement earlier this week that they won’t seek taxpayer help for costs directly tied to the stadium — but will look for public dollars to support the massive mixed-use development they want to fill out the rest of the 326-acre property.

“Without infrastructure support and property tax certainty, the project as described to you will not be able to move forward,” McCaskey said, without offering specifics so early in a plan he said could take 10 years to come to fruition.

That didn’t faze most of those who attended the meeting, a largely supportive crowd whose applause interrupted McCaskey and team president Ted Phillips repeatedly as they noted that the possible suburban stadium will be larger than Soldier Field — and that they’re not even thinking about renovations at the lakeside stadium.

Residents started lining up outside the school two hours prior to the team’s tightly orchestrated public relations presentations, which didn’t include any public officials. Bears reps had advised observers to show up early due to the gym’s 2,000-person capacity — but barely half that many people showed up.

They were treated to additional stylized renderings of the proposed development, which also would include office space, a sportsbook, small residential neighborhoods, retail and park space — all leading to the stadium on the west end of the property. The team hasn’t yet released a potential stadium design.

An artist’s rendering of the Chicago Bears’ potential redevelopment of the Arlington International Racecourse property. This view looks southeast from the potential stadium — which has not yet been designed.

Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

Many filed into the gym wearing Bears jerseys and carrying signs calling on the team to “rise to new heights in Arlington.”

“I’m extremely excited to know they could be coming,” said William Gebavi, a resident of Palatine, which borders the Arlington property.

The construction worker hailed the work that the project could generate. “You’re talking about five, six years of steady work. Maybe a decade,” Gebavi said. “That’s huge for the community.”

And the idea of tax breaks for the team didn’t rile him. “You get out of it what you put into it,” Gebavi said.

A Chicago Bears fan takes a photo of information presented on a screen during an informal community meeting at Hersey High Schools Gymnasium over the Chicago Bears possible Arlington Park development.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Other potential neighbors of the Bears didn’t offer as warm a reception.

“I’m not dead-set against it, but I’m not happy about what it’s going to do to our community,” said Carolynn Leiding, who has lived within earshot of Arlington in Palatine for more than 20 years. “Route 53 [to get to the potential stadium] is already a mess. The traffic is going to be absolutely awful, and that’s not what residents signed up for.”

Nick Jacob, whose Arlington Heights home is also within a few blocks of the site, said he doesn’t want to see public dollars thrown at the project.

“It’s a billion-dollar team. Why should they get handouts?” he said.

Ted Phillips, president of the Chicago Bears, left, speaks during an informal community meeting at Hersey High School’s gymnasium about the Chicago Bears possible Arlington Park development.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Time

But Phillips, the team president, suggested they’re not asking for anything more that other developers ask for similar neighborhood developments — and less than other professional sports teams have.

“The stadium construction itself is privately financed, even though about 20 stadiums built in the last 25 years or so — the vast majority of those had public dollars go to stadium construction,” Phillips said.

“We’re talking about roads, talking about sewers, storm-water utilities. We’re not talking about money that goes to construct either the stadium or the mixed-use development,” Phillips said. “We aren’t trying to play any kind of game to have buildings constructed with the public money.”

In a phone interview before the public meeting, state Rep. Mark Walker, whose district includes the suburb, said he opposes public funding for the stadium, but when it comes to other tax incentives, “it’s what we’d do for any other developer.”

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