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Illinois lawmakers put Bears stadium proposal on hold

Featured image credit: Chicago Bears/MANICA

The Chicago Bears’ proposed $3.2bn (£2.51bn/€2.95bn) stadium project has hit an initial stumbling block, with state lawmakers delaying a decision on a public funding request for the scheme.

The NFL team last month unveiled plans to build a new fixed-roof stadium south of Soldier Field, its current home, with work slated to begin in the summer of 2025. The publicly-owned stadium will act as the centrepiece of the Burnham Park Project, which aims to boost year-round use of the lakefront area.

The proposal includes use for recreational and community events and an increase in open and green space, including 14 acres of athletic fields and recreational park space. The stadium itself would cost $3.2bn, with a further $1.5bn to be put towards additional infrastructure.

The Bears have pledged to contribute $2.3bn towards the project, including a $300m stadium loan from the NFL, which would represent over 70% of the total stadium cost. However, the remaining stadium funds are proposed to come from the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority (ISFA).

With state lawmakers still working on a state budget, senators have declared that there will be no action on the Bears’ funding request before the legislature adjourns for the spring. State Rep. Kam Buckner of Chicago, a member of House Democratic leadership, said, according to the Chicago Tribune: “It’s fair to say that there won’t be any Bears action… in this legislative session, which I think is fine.

“I think a proposal of this magnitude deserves sunlight and scrutiny. And very often what has happened in this building is that things get rammed through at the last minute without much public input or transparency.”

Sen. Bill Cunningham of Chicago, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate, said there will also be no movement during the spring session on requests for public assistance from MLB team the Chicago White Sox for its proposed new ballpark. The Tribune noted that no legislation for either project was even formally announced during the spring session.

At last month’s unveiling, Bears president and CEO, Kevin Warren, said that work could begin next summer if approval was received this month, adding this was “truly one of those adages that time is money”.

The Bears are calling on the ISFA to issue $900m in new bonds to cover the remaining cost of the stadium, adding that each year the project doesn’t proceed means the funding gap would increase by around $150m due to rising costs.

Additionally, the team is seeking that the ISFA refinance around $430m in outstanding debt for previous projects at Soldier Field and Guaranteed Rate Field, where the White Sox currently play. The Bears also want the state agency to borrow about $160m to establish a liquidity fund to cover future shortfalls in the 2% city hotel tax that’s dedicated to repaying the bonds.

Bears officials believe the circa $1.5bn in new borrowing, which needs legislative approval, could be paid off over 40 years without raising the 2% hotel tax. The ISFA has claimed that, including interest and other long-term costs, taxpayers would end up spending about $4.8bn over four decades.

In March, Related Midwest, the developer behind the proposed new ballpark project for the White Sox, said talks were being held over a financing partnership that could also incorporate a new stadium for the Bears.

Sen. Robert Peters, a Chicago Democrat whose district covers Soldier Field, said the Bears and White Sox need to work together to have any chance in delivering new stadia, adding that women’s teams, such as the NWSL’s Chicago Red Stars and WNBA’s Chicago Sky, should also be in consideration for funding for stadium projects.

The Tribune said legislation that would authorise bond authority for the construction of a stadium for a women’s pro sports team was introduced earlier this month, but has seen little progress since then.

“I don’t think there’s necessarily an appetite to just give billionaires a whole bunch of money,” Peters said. “I think there’s just a series of things: People need to work together. They need to be realistic (in) what they ask for. They need to think about equity in that conversation.”