Chicago Bears’ Soldier Field dome proposal by Mayor Lightfoot

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot unveiled plans for Soldier Field that could cost up to $2.2 billion as part of her ongoing campaign to keep the Bears from skipping town for Arlington Heights — or at least deflect blame if the venerable sports team leaves.

Lightfoot’s presentation, delivered at Soldier Field to a group including top city business leaders, said her administration wants the Bears to stay in Chicago but also make improvements to the Museum Campus it sits on even if they leave.

The first option would be to enclose the stadium with a dome. Another option would rebuild the stadium to make it “dome ready” with columns at both end zones, while the third would modify the venue at a multipurpose facility better suited for soccer “while improving its flexibility” for other events.

“Soldier Field must be a year-round destination,” Lightfoot said.

The mayor said the cost of the project and the option would depend on who the stadium’s “anchor tenant” but suggested the city might be willing to move forward with a dome for another team, noting there are other cities that host more than one NFL team.

But Lightfoot’s presentation left as many questions as it provided answers. Could a dome be enough to convince the Bears to stay in a stadium they don’t own or control? Who would pay for the construction?

For their part, the Bears showed no interest in the city’s announcement. Asked for comment, the NFL team re-released a statement they initially put out earlier this month.

“The only potential project the Chicago Bears are exploring for a new stadium development is Arlington Park. As part of our mutual agreement with the seller of that property, we are not pursuing alternative stadium deals or sites, including renovations to Soldier Field, while we are under contract,” the Bears said. “We have informed the City of Chicago that we intend to honor our contractual commitments as we continue our due diligence and predevelopment activities on the Arlington Heights property.”

But the mayor said the Bears would be “foolish” not to consider staying in Chicago. She and other speakers contended it would be cheaper for the team to stay at Soldier Field than to build a new venue elsewhere and stressed the importance for the team to offer and for fans to have an experience that extends beyond the game itself.

“How do we remake the game day experience? How do we create an immersive fan experience? This is where the (world) is going,” said Bob Dunn of Landmark Development, a member of the mayor’s museum campus panel.

Lightfoot’s initial response to the NFL team’s interest in building a stadium in Arlington Heights was to call it “noise” and urge the Bears to focus on “being relevant past October.” Since then, Lightfoot has floated the possibility of building a costly dome over Soldier Field and appointed a task force to examine the Museum Campus that’s home to the stadium.

Earlier this month, the mayor’s handpicked group said Lightfoot should consider renaming Soldier Field to potentially raise hundreds of millions of dollars and “explore the feasibility” of enclosing the stadium with a dome or roof.

The task force also recommended transforming Solidarity Drive into a year-round plaza, creating educational programs for kids and adding large-scale art to rejuvenate the campus. The report also recommended improving CTA service and reducing traffic in the area. Many of the report’s ideas are likely to run into financial or political challenges as officials wait for the Bears to make a decision and sort out their next steps.

The task force also recommended transforming Solidarity Drive into a year-round plaza, creating educational programs for kids and adding large-scale art to rejuvenate the campus. The report also recommended improving CTA service and reducing traffic in the area. Many of the report’s ideas are likely to run into financial or political challenges as officials wait for the Bears to make a decision and sort out their next steps.

Richard Price, chairman and CEO of Mesirow financial who led the working group, addressed the need Monday for transportation improvements, saying that “we all know that it’s a challenge getting here and getting around. That has to be part of the solution.”

The Bears have played at Soldier Field since moving from Wrigley Field in 1971. They played the 2002 season at Champaign’s Memorial Stadium while Soldier Field underwent a $690 million renovation. The stadium, which is owned by the Chicago Park District, holds 61,500 fans, the smallest capacity in the NFL. It can be difficult to reach and is out of date compared with newer football stadiums.

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The Bears signed a purchase agreement for Arlington International Racecourse last fall, which won’t close until later this year at the earliest. Though it is not a done deal, the Bears’ interest in Arlington Heights sparked a rigorous debate over whether Chicago should attempt to keep the team and at what cost. One advantage for the Bears of moving to Arlington Heights is they would be able to develop the 326-acre property around the stadium with shopping, dining and entertainment, an option the team would not have at Soldier Field.

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The Soldier Field renovation completed in 2003 placed saucer-like structure of glass and steel atop the limestone and colonnades of the original 1924 monument to veterans of World War I. Taxpayers covered $432 million of the project, a number that will balloon substantially once the hundreds of millions of dollars in debt and interest are paid off in 2032.

While she tries to determine if it’s possible to keep the team in Chicago, the mayor also needs to prepare for a post-Bears future at the lakefront so she can present a forward-looking plan to try to defray the loss of revenue and civic prestige if they Bears leave, which helps explain today’s news conference.

Lightfoot was joined at Monday’s news conference by Bob Dunn, a developer who has been pushing One Central, a multibillion-dollar development between McCormick Place and the Field Museum that’s also a transit hub.

The mayor was previously cool to the project, which needs various approvals.

Check back for more details on this breaking story.

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