Chicago Bears’ $2 Billion Stadium Investment Would Go Long On Public-Private Partnership

The Chicago Bears recently unveiled pieces of a plan for building a new domed stadium and park space on the city’s lakefront, yards south of the team’s current home at Soldier Field. Opponents and skeptics of the plan began to pounce almost immediately, including because the proposal left them feeling light on details. But there is more to this proposal underneath the facade.

The new venue would be publicly-owned but funded in part by the Bears bringing more than $2 billion of private investment to the project. The development, as team president Kevin Warren said in a statement, would “improve open spaces for all families, fans and the general public to enjoy in the City of Chicago. The future stadium of the Chicago Bears will bring a transformative opportunity to our region—boosting the economy, creating jobs, facilitating mega events and generating millions in tax revenue.” Warren added that the team would share more information as plans unfold.

The proposal for the stadium and surrounding area is in its earliest stages of conception. But in a world that increasingly demands the perceived certainty of fully-formed ideas—especially of the multi-billion-dollar variety—the Bears announcement has some people and groups feeling unsettled. A fair share of residents and taxpayers understandably want to know and see more about the ideas and intentions that the Bears brass has in mind.

At the moment, some members of the public are taking to more than a wait-and-see approach.

Challenges are coming from organizations including Friends of the Parks, which is dedicated to preserving Chicago’s lakefront spaces and is pushing the Bears to consider land at a former hospital in a neighborhood renowned for Black culture and located on the south side of the city. Another is Landmarks Illinois, a nonprofit that objects to Soldier Field being demolished even though the stadium’s colonnades, which remain on the National Register of Historic Places, would be saved and incorporated into the grounds of the new stadium. Leaders of the suburban village of Arlington Heights, where the Bears last year purchased a 326-acre parcel of land for $197.2 million, would like to work with the Bears to overcome a tax dispute that has derailed plans to build a new stadium and entertainment district there.

Meanwhile, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker said that the plan announced by the Bears is “a good first step, but I haven’t heard a proposal that goes along with that $2 billion private investment that says that the state should be involved in anything” for the project that will ultimately costs some multiple of that amount. And, as an article in the Chicago Tribune reported, the Bears announcement “lacked significant details and raised a host of questions.” The announcement did not include information about the amount of public money that would be involved, the types of tax revenue sources it would come from, or whether Illinois Sports Facilities Authority funding would be part of the deal for the stadium that would replace Soldier Field.

There is a good deal of history and nostalgia in and around Soldier Field. That, combined with it being too early at this point in the process for there to be much detail about the new stadium, might leave a lot to be desired in the minds of opponents and skeptics of the Bears’s proposal. But that reality actually presents a unique opportunity: this is a moment for people and groups throughout the community to contribute input that helps shape the future of the lakefront area and how it is used.

For its part, Soldier Field was developed as part of the city parks system and opened in 1924. Designed as a gathering place “for events and a playground for the people,” the stadium has hosted major professional sports games, the inaugural Special Olympic Games, athletic events, concerts, and public gatherings over time. Since 1971, it has been perhaps most well-known as the home of the Bears and, more recently, the MLS Chicago Fire. It hosted the opening ceremony and match of the 1994 FIFA World Cup. But the 61,500-seat venue, which was renovated in 2003 and now ranks as the second-smallest stadium in the NFL and oldest in the league.

Chicago is currently the third-largest media market in the United States. But it does not have a domed stadium, the type of venue that has now become almost a requirement for cities aiming to host sports mega-events. This has been a key factor in the “Windy City” missing out lately on welcoming the likes of the NFL Super Bowl, NCAA Final Four and Big Ten tournaments, WWE WrestleMania, and 2026 FIFA World Cup matches. A new stadium-led development would go a long way in attracting events of that scale and their role in showcasing the city.

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson stated, “I have said all along that meaningful private investment and a strong emphasis on public benefit are my requirements for public-private partnerships in our city. The Chicago Bears plans are a welcome step in that direction and a testament to Chicago’s economic vitality.” He also added that his support hinges on “public benefit and public use” of the stadium with a “365-day operation.”

Contrary to some popular opinion, stadium developments—at least the effective and productive ones—are not exclusively about maximizing owners’, investors’, and partners’ revenue streams around ticket sales, food and beverage, media rights, sponsorships, and merchandise. The best examples across professional sports are those that prioritize social impact and community benefits in stadium projects.

The importance of social impacts and community benefits is often overlooked in the public discourse about recent stadium constructions and renovations. But their significance is why the Bears’s plan reportedly includes creating 20 percent more open green space, plazas and landscaping, and public access to the lakefront for year-round use. It also likely explains why the Bears are interested in and committing to investing $2 billion in the development—a sizeable private contribution to a public venue.

The Bears are proposing an ambitious public-private partnership. It would seem to sit well with many locals, if a recent independent poll of 500 registered voters living in Chicago is any guide. The results showed that 80 percent of those polled support a new stadium development because it would keep the Bears in the city and provide a venue that would put the city back in the running to host mega-events. More than 60 percent support the use of public funds to improve infrastructure assets that provide the community with new opportunities.

Still, there are questions to be answered about the stadium plan and no shortage of blocking-and-tackling to be done along the way in advancing it. But no one should lose sight of the opportunities it presents for economic growth and, more so, social benefits.

When designed and developed with the right objectives, the real estate around major sports venues can enhance quality of experience for fans and visitors on gamedays and quality of life for residents every day. Teamwork from people and organizations across the community who are focused in that way can drive the benefits at a new stadium on Chicago’s lakefront.

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