The mayor is pitching a series of proposals for renovating Soldier Field, including adding a roof. But experts say it's still likely the bears will take their ball and run for the suburbs.
City leaders gathered Monday under the iconic stadium columns along the lakefront, pledging to do what it takes to keep the Bears in the stadium they've called home since 1971.
"We are doing what we believe is making a compelling case for the Chicago Bears to stay in Chicago," said Mayor Lightfoot. "We need to invest in Soldier Field. Soldier Field must be a year-round destination. We must enhance the fan experience. And that’s precisely what we aim to do."
Lightfoot presented several options for the future of Soldier Field, including one that would put a dome suspended from four massive columns above the current structure.
"What you could not do is rest all that weight on this current structure," explained stadium developer Robert Dunn. "But you can build the dome above it and then enclose so that the building is climate controlled 365 days a year."
The other options include a scaled-back redevelopment that could be fitted with a dome at a later date.
Another proposal doesn't include the Bears or a dome, but would refurbish Soldier Field for other activities like concerts and soccer.
All would involve some taxpayer dollars. Lightfoot said redeveloping Soldier Field could cost between $1 billion and $2 billion, depending on the option they pick. But she said it's still a lot cheaper for the Bears than building their own stadium.
"I think that there's no possibility they're not going to consider this plan. They would be foolish not to," said Lightfoot.
A portion of the cost would be paid for by selling naming rights "in a way that respects Soldier Field’s legacy as a war memorial by keeping Soldier in the name of the facility," as the working group charged with "re-imagining" the museum campus suggested in its 50-page report. But key details about how the money would be raised were not revealed.
But the Bears appear intent on moving to Arlington Heights, where they're looking to build their own stadium on the massive Arlington Park site. In a statement, a spokesman for the Bears said, "The only potential project the Chicago Bears are exploring for a new stadium development is Arlington Park."
According to the team, their hands are tied by the agreement they signed to purchase the 326-acre site of the now-shuttered Arlington International Racecourse for $197.2 million.
Sports stadium consultant Marc Ganis said this latest proposal from Mayor Lightfoot is too little, too late.
"The opportunity to keep the Bears long term in Chicago, I believe, has come and gone," Ganis said.
Ganis believes it makes more economic sense for the Bears to own and control their own stadium.
"The reality is if they were serious about keeping the Bears, they would have come up with a much grander plan, one that included a new stadium and a location that was secured, and the Bears could control if not outright own."
"We are making a compelling case for the Bears to stay in Chicago. They want a Tier One stadium to maximize revenues and we agree," Lightfoot said.
With or without the Bears, Lightfoot argued a dome could help Chicago lure marquee events like the Super Bowl and the NCAA’s Final Four.
In addition to a dome, the mayor’s plan for Soldier Field also includes:
- Increasing the NFL’s lowest seating capacity from 61,500 seats to 70,000 seats.
- Raising the number of "traditional" suites from 133 to 140.
- Adding six new "major clubs and experiential areas."
- Creating "more flexible events space and multi-purpose venues," four of them with capacities ranging from 5,000 to 60,000.
- Quadrupling square footage devoted to food and beverage space—to 200,000 sq.ft.
- Dramatically expanding the opportunity for major sponsorships and naming rights.
Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Parks, served on the 23-member working group but was excluded from the final round of discussions on the future of Soldier Field.
Irizarry argued it makes no sense to spend hundreds of millions, if not billions, on a dome.
"We have not seen any plan that would keep that burden off the taxpayers," Irizarry said.
"Friends of the Parks will not carry water for the mayor on this. Friends of the Parks does not agree that there should be a dome on Soldier Field. It is prohibitively expensive and there are other priorities where the city’s money should be spent."
The money would be better spent "rebuilding or fixing crumbling fieldhouses and other park infrastructure around the city," particularly on the long-neglected South and West sides, she said.
Irizarry also condemned as phony inclusiveness the process that Lightfoot used to get to this point.
"We all know this is the mayor’s M.O. It’s disappointing, but not surprising that the mayor would convene a small group of folks, but suggest that all of us were on board and supportive," Irizarry said.
"There were side conversations that were not vetted through the whole group. That is not surprising. We imagined all along that there would be discomfort in participating on this committee because there would end up being things we did not agree with like this."
Present for Lightfoot’s announcement was Bob Dunn, president of Landmark Development. He’s behind a plan to build a new high-rise neighborhood called One Central that would be built over the Metra Electric tracks just west of Soldier Field. But he’s also a veteran stadium developer who has worked with several NFL teams, including three of the Bears’ Central Division rivals: the Green Bay Packers, the Detroit Lions and the Minnesota Vikings.
Dunn played a key role in producing a rendering Lightfoot issued Monday showing Soldier Field surrounded by a new structure supporting a retractable roof. A source said that because of his expertise in NFL stadiums, Dunn has volunteered ideas about what to do with Soldier Field.
The football stadium’s future is important to the One Central project, which requires an estimated $6.5 billion state subsidy for a transit hub. Dunn has said the hub is needed to support his development. One Central has gotten a frosty reception from Lightfoot and from many residents on the Near South Side. Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who backed legislation for the transit hub, has since grown cool to the financial obligation.
One Central has not gotten city zoning approval. The transit agencies involved — CTA, Metra and Amtrak — have not committed themselves to any transit hub, although Metra has backed early construction work as long as it doesn’t impede commuter trains.
Two architects who worked on the 2002-03 renovation and a structural engineer familiar with the project also have told the Sun-Times the mayor’s hands may be tied by the constraints of the existing structure.
Chicago architects Dirk Lohan and Adrian Smith said the current 61,500 capacity — the NFL’s smallest — can be expanded only a little, and only in the end zones. A retractable roof would be difficult, requiring a new support structure.
Ever since the Bears signed the agreement to purchase the old racetrack site, Lightfoot has sounded almost resigned to losing the team.
With or without the Bears, Lightfoot said she wanted to improve the fan experience at Soldier Field and maximize year-round revenues.
The 23-member working group wanted to move the ball over the goal line with a host of changes. Chief among them was resurrecting the idea of a dome — an architecturally difficult, enormously expensive feat intended to boost attendance at winter events.
"These costs would almost certainly not be offset by additional revenue opportunities" — even if adding a dome helps lure a Super Bowl, Wrestlemania or the NCAA Final Four, the report states.
Changing the Soldier Field name is anathema to veterans groups. Former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, mulling a race for mayor, championed the opposition to a naming rights deal.
Nevertheless, the report noted that "even relatively modest modifications" to Soldier Field would "incur significant costs" and that a "large portion of these updates" could be bankrolled by selling naming rights in a respectful way.
Citing, among other examples, VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida, the working group’s report notes: "A similar arrangement in Chicago would allow a sponsorship agreement to be pursued in a way that respects Soldier Field’s legacy as a war memorial by keeping Soldier in the name of the facility," the report states.
Sport marketing expert Marc Ganis has argued putting a dome over Soldier Field, expanding the NFL’s lowest seating capacity, installing synthetic turf and selling naming rights will not keep the Bears in Chicago because it’s "trying to put lipstick on a pig."
"Even if they achieved everything that’s been listed and they paid for it all with public funds, it wouldn’t even be close to sufficient for a future long-term home for the Bears," Ganis, who has advised numerous NFL teams on stadium financing, told the Sun-Times earlier this month.
"I give them credit for trying to put lipstick on a pig. But putting a roof on it, adding a few more restaurants [seats and suites] doesn’t change what the building is: a small, difficult-to-get-to, publicly owned and operated stadium that is not even close to being sufficient to host an NFL team in the third-largest market in the country for decades to come in a modern-day NFL that requires a large physical stadium with many areas to be programmed and team facilities."
Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.