Bears’ George McCaskey: new stadium ‘our 100-year opportunity’

George McCaskey didn’t always believe the Bears needed a home of their own.

Now, the Bears chairman said, is the time.

“I would compare it to a homeowner that rents for year after year after year,” he said Friday at Halas Hall. “I mean, there are advantages to that– but there are some significant disadvantages to that also.”

The Bears do rent — from the Chicago Park District– and their disadvantages at Soldier Field include playing in one of the league’s smallest stadiums, which is outclassed by the amenities of most of the NFL’s modern stadiums.

The Bears see the advantage in building a domed stadium on the former Arlington Racetrack site, for which they signed a $197.2 million purchase agreement last year and remain in escrow. The price to build on the 326-acre mixed-use site, though, could reach $5 billion.

McCaskey tried to shape the search for land as the franchise’s manifest destiny. When founder Geroge Halas went from Wrigley Field to Soldier Field in 1971, his grandson reiterated Friday, it was supposed to be temporary.

“In each of those situations, the building had been designed and built primarily for other events or another team,” McCaskey said. “This is our 100-year opportunity to design it for us.”

The stadium has yet to be designed, but the team presented rough plans for mixed-use site to Arlington Heights residents Thursday night. The project could take as long as 10 years or more to build, president/CEO Ted Phillips said Friday, though the stadium would likely be finished sooner.

“It’s a massive challenge,” Phillips said.

The Bears are expected to close escrow on the land by the time Phillips retires on Feb. 28. The stadium project will be a big component of the next president/CEO’s job, Phillips said, “assuming we close, assuming we develop it.” The Bears could bring in Phillips’ successor before he retires to ease the transition.

Until then, the Bears are, by contract with seller Churchill Downs, not allowed to explore building on any other property–including making fundamental changes to Soldier Field.

In July, Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot laid out three proposals for enclosing the Lakefront stadium with a dome.Lightfoot called McCaskey shortly before the announcement.

“We had a good conversation,” McCaskey said. “I have all the respect in the world for Mayor Lightfoot.”

The Bears could not, however, discuss the Soldier Field remodeling plans.

“When they outline that publicly, we haven’t seen any of the details,” Phillips said. “Because we told them we weren’t engaging in those discussions.”

The Bears can re-engage after their land deal closes, though McCaskey said that “our singular focus” remains on the Northwest suburban site. The Bears can break their Soldier Field lease early –it runs through 2033. If they left in 2026, they’d have to pay almost $90 million. The price goes down the longer the team stays downtown.

McCaskey said the Bears didn’t know exactly how they’d compensate fans with Soldier Field personal seat licenses, but the team “will come up with a plan that we hope will be beneficial … to the long-term PSL holders that we currently have.”

The Bears say they are seeking public money not for the Arlington Heights stadium, but for costs associated with the development. Asked what the biggest challenges were in landing public funds, McCaskey demurred.

“Before we get to that, we have to determine whether we’re going to be able to close on the land,” he said. “So we’re continuing our financial analysis. It’s not complete yet.

“But the focus in the short term is the property.”

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