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‘One step at a time’: Chicago Bears remain in a waiting game for a potential new stadium in Arlington Heights

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 3/30/2022 Dan Wiederer, Chicago Tribune
Walter Payton leaves the field with Bears quarterback Jim McMahon after a season-opening win over Tampa Bay at Soldier Field on Sept. 8, 1985. © Charles Cherney/Chicago Tribune/TNS Walter Payton leaves the field with Bears quarterback Jim McMahon after a season-opening win over Tampa Bay at Soldier Field on Sept. 8, 1985.

Chicago Bears Chairman George McCaskey had little to reveal Tuesday afternoon about the organization’s progress toward building a potential new stadium in Arlington Heights.

Speaking at the conclusion of the NFL owners meetings at The Breakers, McCaskey again stressed that the team’s purchase agreement on the property at the former Arlington International Racecourse in the northwest suburb has yet to close and likely won’t until late this year or in early 2023. Therefore, the Bears aren’t getting ahead of themselves.

The Chicago Bears take the field for a preseason game against the Miami Dolphins at Soldier Field on Aug. 14, 2021. © John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS The Chicago Bears take the field for a preseason game against the Miami Dolphins at Soldier Field on Aug. 14, 2021.

“We’re taking it one step at a time,” McCaskey said. “The objective is to close and go through the process to see if we can get to that (next) point.”

Major stadium news surfaced during this week’s league meetings. The Buffalo Bills reached an agreement with New York State officials to receive $850 million in public funding to build an open-air stadium adjacent to its current home venue at Highmark Stadium. The estimated cost of that project is $1.35 billion, with team owners committing to a $350 million contribution and an additional $200 million coming through league funding sources.

A Chicago Bears fan flexes for the video camera in the fourth quarter between the Bears and Cincinnati Bengals at Soldier Field on Sept. 19, 2021. © John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS A Chicago Bears fan flexes for the video camera in the fourth quarter between the Bears and Cincinnati Bengals at Soldier Field on Sept. 19, 2021.

A year ago, Bills owners indicated they would not be renewing the lease on Highmark Stadium, which opened in 1973, until there was an agreement with state and county officials to aid the funding of a new stadium project. Highmark Stadium is the fourth-oldest NFL venue behind Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., Lambeau Field in Green Bay and Soldier Field, which opened in 1924 and has been home to the Bears since 1971.

The Bills’ push to build a stadium has accelerated, resulting in this week’s breakthrough.

But even with those developments, McCaskey insisted Tuesday that there was little within the Bills’ situation that he found illuminating or helpful toward the Bears’ potential future ventures.

“We’re still in the process of evaluating the land (in Arlington Heights), going through that due-diligence process,” McCaskey said. “That’s what we’re focused on.”

McCaskey later steered around a question about the team’s timeline for investigating possible funding options for a new stadium, perhaps through private investment or public funding or a combination of both.

“Right now we’re focused on whether to acquire the land,” McCaskey reiterated.

Chicago Bears players take a moment to themselves before a preseason game against the Miami Dolphins at Soldier Field on Aug. 14, 2021, in Chicago. © John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS Chicago Bears players take a moment to themselves before a preseason game against the Miami Dolphins at Soldier Field on Aug. 14, 2021, in Chicago.

In June, the Bears signed a $197.2 million purchase agreement on the Arlington Park land. In January, team President and CEO Ted Phillips stressed that closing on the property eventually would lead the Bears to a new stage in their exploration.

Fireworks shoot from the perimeter of Soldier Field on the opening game of the Chicago Bears 100th season, Sept. 5, 2019. © Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/TNS Fireworks shoot from the perimeter of Soldier Field on the opening game of the Chicago Bears 100th season, Sept. 5, 2019.

“We’ll decide whether it’s financially feasible to try to develop (that land) further,” Phillips said. “And what’s important now is that our focus for long-term development is exclusively on that property at Arlington Park.”

Earlier this month, the Bears confirmed they were working with a Kansas City, Kan.,-based architecture firm, a commercial real estate and property investment firm and a strategic management consulting firm as they explore options for a potential new stadium.

Chicago Bears fans line up to enter Soldier Field on Sept. 19, 2021. © Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/TNS Chicago Bears fans line up to enter Soldier Field on Sept. 19, 2021.

That’s certainly a show of the team’s seriousness to set itself up for a more promising future on the stadium front.

The Bears’ lease at Soldier Field runs through 2033. But according to a 2021 Tribune report, the organization could break that agreement at a cost of $84 million in 2026.

Five stadiums have opened in the NFL in the last 10 years. Last season, the Bears played games at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles and Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. Both stadiums opened in 2020. The Bears also have taken annual trips to U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis since the Vikings made that their home in 2016.

Chicago Bears fans tailgate outside of Soldier Field on Sept. 19, 2021. © Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/TNS Chicago Bears fans tailgate outside of Soldier Field on Sept. 19, 2021.

“Of course you look around and assess the facilities,” McCaskey said Tuesday. “You look for ideas.”

An empty Soldier Field before the Chicago Fire play the FC Cincinnati, June 23, 2021, in Chicago. © Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune/TNS An empty Soldier Field before the Chicago Fire play the FC Cincinnati, June 23, 2021, in Chicago.

McCaskey was asked whether he has significant emotional attachment to Soldier Field as someone who values tradition and has been attending games there since he was a stats runner as a teenager and whether he could come to terms with the team playing in a new suburban stadium.

“We’re not there yet,” he said. “I think 2021 was our 50th year in Soldier Field. And we played exactly 50 years in Wrigley Field (also). So there is tremendous attachment to both places.”

That attachment, however, doesn’t seem to be a significant factor that would limit the team’s movement.

©2022 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Arlington International Racecourse can be seen on June 24, 2021, in Arlington Heights. The Chicago Bears have a bid to move to the facility.

Arlington International Racecourse can be seen on June 24, 2021, in Arlington Heights. The Chicago Bears have a bid to move to the facility.
© Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/TNS
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