The Chicago Bears are cracking open their playbook this week, providing a glimpse of the stadium and entertainment complex planned for Arlington Heights.
Master plan renderings of the team’s proposal for the 326-acre former Arlington Park Racetrack site convey the massiveness of the proposed project, but not much detail other than a stadium surrounded by green space, roads and a “mixed-use district” of anonymous-for-now structures.
The Bears say they will build the stadium on their own dime. But be warned: The team wants taxpayer help to get that mixed-use district across the goal line.
“While the Bears will seek no public funding for direct stadium structure construction, given the broad, long-term public benefits of this project, we look forward to partnering with the various governmental bodies to secure additional funding and assistance needed to support the feasibility of the remainder of the development,” the team said in an open letter released Tuesday.
If the Bears, a sports franchise now worth $5 billion — the sixth most valuable NFL team, according to Sportico — can make a better deal and find greener pastures for themselves in Arlington Heights, then good for them.
But the team shouldn’t expect the public’s help paying for any part of the project, especially given the tremendous windfall the organization will reap if the venture is successful.
Given today’s economic climate and the demand on tax dollars for basic services and to balance government budgets, it’s shameful for the Bears to even ask.
Renderings and rosy numbers
The release of the renderings and the letter comes just before Thursday’s public meeting in Arlington Heights on the stadium.
The Bears haven’t yet said how much public money they’ll seek, but we’d wager the “ask” will be substantial given the size of the non-stadium portions of the proposal, as indicated in the renderings.
And the financial numbers released are rosy enough to warrant a section at the Chicago Botanic Gardens: The team promises $9.4 billion in economic impact for the region, part of which is a yearly tax haul of $51 million for the state and $9.8 for Cook County.
“Make no mistake. This is much more than a stadium project,” the Bears said in that open letter. “Any development of Arlington Park will propose to include a multi-purpose entertainment, commercial/retail and housing district that will provide considerable economic benefits to Cook County, the surrounding region and the state of Illinois.”
But sports stadium expert and University of Chicago economics professor Allen Sanderson cast doubt on the numbers — and we agree.
“Whenever anyone is offering up an economic impact number, a good rule of thumb is to move the decimal one place to the left,” Sanderson told Sun-Times reporter Fran Spielman, while noting he hasn’t seen the Bears’ research.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s the Bears, or a local chamber of commerce, or a mayor — 90% of that is hyperbole or just inflated,” he said.
‘Multi-purpose entertainment district’
The Bears signed a $197 million option last September to buy the old Arlington Heights racetrack site with an eye toward moving out of Soldier Field, where the team has been a tenant since 1971.
The Bears’ Soldier Field lease expires in 2033. Reminder: Taxpayers are still on the hook for $400 million of the $606 million stadium renovation in 2003.
At the Arlington Heights site, the team said it envisions a multi-purpose entertainment district with a “best-in-class, enclosed stadium” capable of hosting college football playoffs, the NCAA’s Final Four basketball championships and the Super Bowl.
“The long-term vision for the entire project is an ongoing work in progress, but could include: restaurants, office space, hotel, fitness center, new parks and open spaces and other improvements for the community to enjoy.”
That’s all well and good. But the days of using public funds to assist sports stadium projects must go the way of the leather helmet.
And there are always hidden infrastructure costs to taxpayers in projects like these.
As this editorial board wrote a year ago: “If the Bears move to Arlington Heights, what are the chances the team will pay for the new roads and other infrastructure needed to make the stadium work? About zero. You, the taxpayer, will pay those costs, directly or indirectly.”
Another reminder: Back in the 1970s, the team asked Arlington Heights to issue bonds to build a stadium possibly patterned after the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan. That deal fell through.
Studies have shown that rosy revenue estimates of the economic impact of sports stadiums simply do not pan out. Even if the Bears master plan and financial projections are as accurate as a Sid Luckman pass, lawmakers should spike any ask for public funds to finance any part of the stadium project.
Especially for a 102-year-old NFL franchise that’s worth billions.
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