CHICAGO - Illinoisans are calling conflicting plays on a potential Chicago Bears move to Arlington Heights, split among those who favor spiking Soldier Field for a new suburban stadium, others who want the team to hold the line on the lakefront — and a large chunk who are punting on the issue.
But an outsized portion of them agree on one point: They don’t want to see any of their tax dollars thrown at the potential suburban mega-development.
That’s according to a Chicago Sun-Times/WBEZ Poll that found a little under half of Illinois voters don’t want a cent of public money going to the team’s $5 billion plan — not even to chip in for infrastructure costs, the kind of subsidies that Bears executives have already acknowledged they’d seek.
The survey last week of 770 likely general election voters across the state underscores the difficulty the team faces in lining up support for its sprawling proposal to transform the shuttered Arlington International Racecourse into a stadium campus accompanied by scores of new restaurants, businesses and residential buildings.
About 31% of people who took part in the phone and text message survey conducted by Public Policy Polling said they think the Bears should move from Soldier Field to Arlington Heights, compared to 29% who said they think the team should stay put. About 39% said they weren’t sure.
Perhaps not surprisingly, suburban fans are more excited about the potential move, the Sun-Times/WBEZ Poll suggests, as 51% of respondents from suburban Cook County and the collar counties said the team should break ground in the suburbs. Only 19% of Chicago respondents said the team should leave the city, 44% opposed the move, and 37% were unsure.
Voters outside the Chicago area were lukewarm on the entire issue. Only 14% of downstate voters supported the move to Arlington Heights, 27% opposed it, and 59% didn’t know one way or the other.
But in a follow-up question, regardless of where they lived, 45% of all respondents said they would oppose any government funding being used for the stadium or any of the sewers, roads and other infrastructure costs needed to make the massive mixed-use development a reality.
"Why should the taxpayers fund anything? It’s a private organization making tons of money," said Evanghelos Karasmanakis, a poll respondent who said he’d enjoy having the team closer to his Morton Grove home — as long as it’s not on the taxpayers’ dime.
"They’re making huge profits, and everyone still watches even though they never win."
Twenty-eight percent of respondents were open to public financing for the infrastructure alone, while 12% said they’d even be OK with giving the team money for the stadium itself — something the team has vowed not to ask for.
The remaining 15% of respondents to the Sun-Times/WBEZ Poll said they’re not sure how they feel about the prospect of public money going into an Arlington Heights stadium or the rest of the 326-acre plot that the team wants to round out with other amenities.
The margin of error for the poll is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, but that margin widens when the results are broken down into smaller categories, including by region.
During his first direct pitch to Arlington Heights residents last month, Bears chairman George McCaskey said the team wouldn’t ask for public assistance for any of the stadium construction — with the caveat that "we will need help" with associated costs.
"Without infrastructure support and property tax certainty, the project as described to you will not be able to move forward," McCaskey said.
That message didn’t land with poll respondent Nicholas Goodale, who said the team’s framing "feels a little like a shell game."
"If you need to build out access roads, expand transit and a bunch of other things that wouldn’t have been necessary otherwise, then that’s part of the project," said Goodale, a casual Bears fan from Lincoln Park who’d rather see the team stay on the lakefront. "It’s just a way for them to make it more palatable for voters and the politicians who have to sign off on it."
There are plenty more T’s to cross and I’s to dot before the team’s X’s and O’s shift to suburbia, though. The Bears’ $197 million purchase of Arlington International Racecourse from Churchill Downs Inc. isn’t expected to close until early next year. They haven’t even nailed down a conceptual design for the stadium, though they’ve said it’ll have a dome and seat plenty more than Soldier Field’s lowest-in-the-NFL capacity of 61,500.
Arlington Heights trustees are weighing a "pre-development agreement" with the team, which would commit the village to exploring public financing for infrastructure, including through tax increment financing, a business district tax and other possibilities.
That’s OK by Daniel Wehrenberg, who lives within walking distance of Soldier Field, a "pathetic stadium that’s beyond remedy," by his estimation. The poll respondent said the team is due for a new home in the burbs, and that he’s fine with public dollars going into the project — but that the help should come mostly from the team’s new host, he said.
"If Arlington wants them out there, they should be ready to contribute," Wehrenberg said.
Village trustees are slated to vote on the non-binding pre-development agreement Nov. 7. A final deal is still months away, at least. If the deal is approved, the team has said it could take a decade for the project to come to fruition.
The Bears’ lease at Soldier Field runs through 2033, but they could break the deal early for what would be small potatoes in the grand scheme of financing a new stadium.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot launched a Hail Mary this summer to keep the team in Chicago with a proposal to put a dome over Soldier Field, but Bears execs have said they’re only considering Arlington Heights.