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Taking the next step toward building a new stadium, the Chicago Bears on Thursday announced an informational community meeting to discuss the potential purchase and development of Arlington International Racecourse.
Team officials in a statement said they’ll present conceptual plans next week for a transit-oriented, mixed-use entertainment district anchored by a stadium in Arlington Heights that would be one of the largest development projects in Illinois history.
The meeting is scheduled for 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday, in the gym at Hersey High School, 1900 E. Thomas St. in Arlington Heights.
Anticipating a large crowd, seats will be available on a first come, first served basis. The parking lots will open at 5 p.m., with doors opening at 5:30 p.m.
The meeting is informational only. If the project were to move forward, the team stated, all required public meetings would take place later before Arlington Heights officials.
[ [Don’t miss] Will the Chicago Bears leave Soldier Field? Here’s what to know about the team’s possible move to Arlington Heights. ]
The announcement is in line with statements by Mayor Tom Hayes that the village will likely begin holding meetings this fall to discuss the proposal.
Last year, the team and track owner Churchill Downs Inc. announced an agreement for the Bears to buy the 326-acre racetrack site for $197 million, pending final reviews and approvals by both parties. The deal is expected to be closed by early 2023.
Any development would have to be approved by village officials. The mayor has welcomed the team’s proposed move from Soldier Field in Chicago, and has floated the idea of limited local taxpayer support.
[ [Don’t miss] What would a potential new Chicago Bears stadium in Arlington Heights be like? Here’s a look at the 7 newest NFL stadiums, from capacity to best amenities. ]
In response, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a proposal to build a dome on top of Soldier Field, and expand its capacity from 61,500, the smallest in the National Football League, to 70,000.
But the city, already operating at a deficit and still paying off the stadium’s last renovation in 2003, has not specified how it would pay for such a costly project.
Lightfoot’s press office issued a statement that she has made a “compelling case” for the Bears to stay in Chicago at a “tier one” stadium.
“The city will continue to make the case to the Bears, the NFL and the public that a revitalized Soldier Field makes the most economic sense,” spokeswoman Kate LeFurgy said.
Arlington Heights Mayor Hayes called the meeting an encouraging sign.
“They’re increasing the speed of the project as we move forward toward making this a reality,” he said. “This is an opportunity to get initial feedback from the community, so it’s a very important and exciting part of the process.”
He emphasized that this is not a village meeting, and he would not be present so as not to interfere.
A Bears spokesman declined additional comment on the meeting.
[ Read Bears’ announcement of informational meeting. ]
The meeting is expected to be more about the entire development of the property as an entertainment district than about the fine details of the stadium. It is a chance for the team to let the public know where it’s at with the project and encourage feedback. The team is expected to stress that the purchase of the property — and the ensuing development — is not yet a done deal.
The Bears have called Soldier Field home since 1971, but the team has discussed or proposed playing its games elsewhere throughout much of the last 50 years.
Wrigley Field served as the original home venue for the team when it moved to Chicago in 1921 and remained there through 1970.
But the Bears were forced to find a new home after the American Football League merged with the National Football League and required stadiums to seat at least 50,000 fans.
A recent poll commissioned by a self-described libertarian group found that a majority of Arlington Heights residents surveyed support the Bears moving from Soldier Field to their village, but oppose any tax subsidy to help the team do so.
The poll, released last month, found that 72% of respondents approved of the Bears’ proposal to build a stadium at the closed Arlington International Racecourse — but 68% opposed using tax dollars to help the team.
The poll also found strong support for an ordinance to prohibit Arlington Heights from using taxpayer funds to help build a stadium or other “corporate welfare” by a 55%-30% margin.
The survey was sponsored by Americans for Prosperity-Illinois, a group founded by the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, and surveyed 300 registered voters in the village.
The prior renovation of Soldier Field cost some $690 million, of which taxpayers were on the hook for $432 million, plus hundreds of millions in interest, which they’re still paying through 2032.
That renovation was widely seen as underwhelming, leaving an undersized stadium shoehorned inside the original facility’s colonnades.
The Bears have by far the oldest stadium in the NFL, dating to 1924, but it’s owned and operated by the Chicago Park District. Since the team arrived in 1971, every other team in the league besides the Green Bay Packers has built a new stadium.
Just since 2009, some of the league’s premier franchises near Dallas, New York and Los Angeles and elsewhere have built palatial facilities outside of their home cities.
In the meantime, public sentiment has turned against subsidizing teams worth billions of dollars. Research generally has shown that such large expenditures don’t pay for themselves.
Chicago Tribune’s Gregory Pratt and A.D. Quig contributed.