Chicago Bears meet with Naperville about plans for new stadium

Chicago Bears officials met with Naperville Mayor Scott Wehrli on Friday to discuss the possibility of abandoning their plans for a new stadium development in Arlington Heights in favor of building it in the western suburb.

In a move that could be used as bargaining leverage, the team said in a statement Friday that plans to build “the largest single development project in Illinois history” are “at risk” in Arlington Heights.

The Bears objected that recent tax hikes on the former Arlington Park racetrack, which the Bears bought this year, would result in taxes far higher than its worth while it is not operational.

“We will continue the ongoing demolition activity and work toward a path forward in Arlington Heights, but it is no longer our singular focus,” team officials wrote. “It is our responsibility to listen to other municipalities in Chicagoland about potential locations that can deliver on this transformational opportunity for our fans, our club and the state of Illinois.”

The organization maintains plans to build an enclosed stadium with accompanying entertainment and residential development in Arlington Heights is not a done deal. There remains outstanding questions on the team getting certainty on property tax limits and public subsidies to help build infrastructure for the project.

Those uncertainties led Wehrli to send a letter May 24 to Bears President and CEO Kevin Warren in which the mayor acknowledged the team’s commitment to developing and operating its own stadium, which “is essential for on-field success and pursuing championships.”

“I would like to formally introduce our community to your organization as you consider or reassess your planned relocation,” wrote the new Naperville mayor, who was elected this spring and took office a month ago.

Wehrli told Warren several available or to-be-available sites may fit the characteristics the organization is looking for in a future home.

He called the conversations “good” and said “there’s more to come.”

The former BP campus on June 2, 2023, in Naperville.

Where those locations are has not been disclosed but one site large enough for such a development is the former BP campus property along Warrenville Road between Washington and Mill streets. Located along the Interstate 88 corridor, it would be accessible from I-88′s Naperville Road and Winfield Road exits.

The Bears have a lease at Soldier Field in Chicago through 2033, but could make money from new seat licenses, luxury suites, naming rights, and other features if they built their own stadium. Such a project would take years, but they could break the lease as early as 2026 for a fee of $84 million. The team has played at Soldier Field for more than half a century.

Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes said he understands that the Bears are a for-profit business and have to pursue all opportunities.

“I would be doing the same thing, explore all my options and pick the best one,” he said. “I still think Arlington Heights is the best option.”

The team is unlikely to find such a prime property as the former Arlington Park, Hayes said, with 326 mostly open acres next to major roadways and with its own commuter train station. And the Bears already own the land.

The mayor encouraged the school districts and the team to continue negotiations over property taxes, with the requirement that any deal would be a long-term economic boost for the team and the region.

To help a potential Bears’ move to Naperville, Wehrli said the city’s economic development partner, Naperville Development Partnership, has a track record of working with businesses to make investment in Naperville.

Wehrli said as mayor pledged to pursue responsible economic development to support the city’s economy, and being the home of the Chicago Bears would unlock tremendous economic benefits for the community.

City spokeswoman Linda LaCloche reiterated that economic development is one of Wehrli’s primary focuses. “The mayor will continue to highlight Naperville’s benefits to businesses throughout Chicagoland and across the country,” LaCloche said.

Naperville, which has a population of around 150,000, is attractive for all types of businesses, LaCloche said, because it has the second largest economy in Illinois, “with a highly educated workforce, top ranked public safety, a vibrant downtown, excellent public transit and proximity to major interstates.”

Then-Naperville mayoral candidate Scott Wehrli, right, speaks to a supporter as election results come in at Empire in Naperville on election night on April 4, 2023.

Interstate 88 extends through the city’s northern limits, and Interstates 355 and 55 are less than 5 miles from the city to the east and south, respectively.

Two railroad lines run through Naperville, the Burlington-Northern-Santa Fe Railway and the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Railway. Metra operates commuter trains along the BNSF Railway and has two stations within the city, the main station on Fourth Avenue and the Route 59 station.

The city also has some experience as a home to a professional sports team, though on a much smaller scale.

For the 2002 and 2003 seasons, the Major League Soccer team Chicago Fire played at North Central College in Naperville while Soldier Field was being renovated.

Naperville also was among the more than 100 communities Fire officials delivered proposal requests to build a soccer-specific stadium for use in 2007.

Naperville opted not to submit, and at the time said a costly soccer stadium wasn’t a priority and there wasn’t suitable land available along the I-88 corridor.

Interested parties weighed in on the Naperville talks.

Democratic state Rep. Mark Walker of Arlington Heights said Friday that he was “not really surprised” to learn that the Bears were in conversation with Naperville officials. “They may think it gives them a little leverage. … I’m not sure whether it does or not.”

What has surprised Walker is that the football club has been so focused on the property tax payment for the former racetrack “because it’s a multibillion-dollar project and there are all kinds of other things in play here.”

Still, the Bears being courted by another suitor could help speed along negotiations with Arlington Heights and school districts, Walker said.

Democratic state Rep. Marty Moylan of Des Plaines sponsored a bill to promote the Arlington site, but the spring legislative session ended May 27 with the bill in limbo.

Moylan said Bears “are trying to leverage their product … and get the best deal possible. And I agree with them.”

Village of Arlington Heights staff said in a statement that they had expected the team to continue evaluating other potential locations for a stadium development “as part of their due diligence process.” However, the statement continued, the old racetrack has a number of factors going for it that are hard to replicate.

“It is clear that the Chicago Bears Football Club understands the unique potential of this site, as evidenced by

their recent purchase of the property,” the statement said.

Village staff said they would continue working with the club and other involved parties on a possible stadium and mixed-use district at the racecourse and would “work through the inevitable challenges that come with any large development effort.”

Chicago Tribune’s Jeremy Gorner and Dan Petrella and Pioneer Press’ Caroline Kubzansky contributed.

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