The Chicago Bears will unveil plans for Arlington Heights Stadium and the Entertainment District next week, reports say

MUSEUM CAMPUS — The Chicago Bears will unveil plans for a new stadium in Arlington Heights on Sept. 8 as they continue to make moves that could lead them out of Solider Field and into their own home.

The team announced Thursday afternoon that it will present conceptual plans for an Arlington Heights stadium at a Sept. 8 meeting at John Hersey High School in the northwest suburb, according to multiple reports.

In a statement, team officials said their “transit-oriented, mixed-use entertainment district” at the now-closed Arlington Park Speedway will be “one of the largest development projects in the history of the state of Illinois,” according to the Sun-Times.

Next week’s meeting aims to show the plan to the public and field questions. Separate approval from the suburban village council must follow.

The announcement is the latest twist in the ongoing stadium drama between the Bears and the city of Chicago, a saga that dates back to the 1970s, when the team first threatened to leave Soldier Field for Arlington Heights.

The city and the Bears rebuilt Soldier Field in 2002, but it remains the smallest capacity stadium in the NFL. And the Bears are tenants of the Chicago Park District, meaning they pay rent and split many of the revenue streams.

Mayor Laurie Lightfoot tried to convince the team to stay by offering to build a dome over the stadium, but many saw it as a salute with little chance of the team staying within the city limits.

The Bears’ last dance with Arlington Heights spanned several years, including an announcement in June 2021 that they would bid on the sprawling 326-acre site on which the now-shuttered Arlington Park Racetrack sits. In September, the team announced it had signed a purchase agreement — but that deal has been delayed for nearly a year without being finalized.

Churchill Downs put the historic track and surrounding property up for sale in February 2021 and then ceased racing operations at the end of last season. The racetrack was rebuilt after a fire in 1985 and has long been considered one of the best racing venues in the country.

When the Bears first announced they were getting involved in the bidding, Lightfoot dismissed it as “obviously a negotiating tactic that the Bears have used before.” And she took a shot, saying, “And like most Bears fans, we want the organization to focus on putting a winning team on the field, finally beating the Packers and being relevant in October. Everything else is just noise.”

The Bears’ license at Soldier Field, the NFL’s smallest stadium at 61,500, expires in 2033. The Bears pay rent to the Chicago Park District for Soldier Field, split the revenue and have little room for expansion. The move to a new facility is expected to mean a potentially multi-billion-dollar Bears-owned complex that would create a stream of new revenue streams for the team. Details on how the Bears will finance the project have not been disclosed.

The Bears moved to Chicago Park District-owned Solder Field in 1971, but threatened to move to Arlington Heights a few years later. Then-Mayor Richard J. Daley threatened to sue to prevent them from calling themselves the Chicago Bears if they moved. His son, Mayor Richard M. Daley, also had years of tense negotiations with the team, which threatened to move to Gary, Indiana in 1995.

The Bears have a lease at Soldier Field through 2033, but can break it in 2026 by paying an $84 million penalty to the city, the Tribune reported. This price drops in the following years.

Big city teams opting for more space in the suburbs is not unprecedented. The New York Giants and New York Jets moved from the city decades ago for New Jersey. The San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys and Washington Football Team also play out of the cities they are named after.

Lightfoot created a committee of civic leaders to come up with a new version of Soldier Field and the surrounding museum campus in hopes of keeping the bears in town or having a backup plan if they escape.

In late July, it unveiled its plan to build a dome over Soldier Field, a $2.2 billion dome proposal that was one of three options to improve the stadium as part of a grand plan to overhaul the museum’s waterfront campus on the lake. The other options would make the stadium “dome-ready” for future construction or, if the Bears rush to the suburbs, retrofit it without a dome to make it a stadium more suitable for the Chicago Fire.

At the time, she said “discussions are ongoing” with the Bears and the NFL — and she believes the team will take the dome proposal seriously.

“It would be foolish not to,” the mayor said.

And if they leave town, Lightfoot hasn’t ruled out trying to lure another NFL team to Chicago. Asked if the city would build a dome for another team, Lightfoot smiled slightly and said, “I see that as an option, yes. A lot of cities have two NFL teams.”

If the dome is built, it will greatly modernize the facility, enclosing the field to be accessible year-round. The dome will sit on four “super columns” built around the existing structure, making it climate controlled.

credit: City of Chicago
An image shows what a domed Soldier Field might look like.

The dome project will increase capacity from the NFL’s current level of 61,500 to 70,000. It will add seven additional suites for a total of 140, six new clubhouses and four times the space for food and beverage sales.

“The improved Soldier Field will provide a world-class visitor experience,” Lightfoot said. “Furthermore, each of these proposed renovations will allow Soldier Field to maintain its role as an economic engine for Chicago for years to come, as these changes will allow us to continue to bring sports, music and other exciting events to our city.”

The dome project was designed by Robert Dunn, known for developing stadiums for NFL teams such as the Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings and others. He is also president of Landmark Development, the group behind the potential $20 billion One Central development proposed to tower over the train tracks just west of Soldier Field.

Dunn said the dome project would be a much cheaper alternative for the Bears than packing up and heading to Arlington Heights.

Lightfoot is adamant she will “do everything” to keep the Bears in Chicago, having previously said the city would present an “extremely compelling economic case” for the team to remain at Soldier Field.

Lightfoot and her deputies did not specify how they plan to finance a dome, but said it could include funding from the NFL, citing rights and debt revenue. Lightfoot said taxpayers’ money would “of course” be involved.

credit: City of Chicago
A rendering shows what a Soldier Field dome might look like.

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