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Bears close on former Arlington International Racecourse property, putting them a step closer to moving

Bears now officially own Arlington International Racecourse property
Bears now officially own Arlington International Racecourse property 02:36

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. (CBS) -- The Bears announced Wednesday that they have closed on the sale of the former Arlington International Racecourse property in Arlington Heights.

This puts the Bears a step closer to saying goodbye to Soldier Field. 

Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes told CBS 2's Marissa Perlman he's excited the Bears now officially own the old racetrack site.

"It's a major milestone in the process," Hayes said.

In an open letter, the Bears said finalizing the purchase of the Arlington Heights property does not mean for sure that a new Bears stadium will be built there – but it is "an important next step in our ongoing evaluation of the opportunity."

"There is still a tremendous amount of due diligence work to be done to determine if constructing an enclosed state-of-the-art stadium and multi-purpose entertainment district is feasible," the  Bears letter read.

If the plan for the stadium does go ahead, the development is projected to create more than 48,000 jobs, generate $9.4 billion in economic impact for the Chicago area economy, and provide $3.9 billion I new labor income to workers in the region, the Bears wrote.

The completed project would create more than 9,750 long-term jobs, generate $1.4 billion in annual economic impact for the Chicago area, and provide $601 million in annal labor to workers in the region.

The Bears are also soliciting input from stakeholders in the Arlington Heights area.

"Over the past five months, we have met with local residents, small business owners, school districts, elected officials and other interested stakeholders to secure their critical input, and we will continue to have an open dialogue to ensure this potential multi-purpose development provides the greatest possible benefits to the region," the team wrote.

If the new stadium project goes ahead, the Bears will not seek taxpayer funds for the structure, the letter said. But the project would require certainty on property tax limits and public subsidies to help build the project.

The Bears specifically said they need a "public-private partnership addressing predictable taxes and necessary infrastructure funding for public uses."

"We're certainly willing to explore other potential financial assistance, as we would do with any developer," Hayes said.

The Bears' announcement came shortly after a Megaprojects Bill was introduced in Springfield. The legislation could help the Bears by freezing property taxes for up to 40 years.

Some neighbors in Arlington Heights worry about who is going to foot the bill, and how it will affect their taxes - even though the Bears, again, said they will not seek tax dollars to build the stadium itself.

Others worry about traffic and noise on game days.

"Sunday traffic would be awful. I'd ride my bike if it was five miles – it would be a nightmare," said Sam Myers. "The highway system can't support it. The train currently can't support it."

Sports business consultant Marc Ganis said other roadblocks lie ahead for the Bears too – high interest rates, a possible recession, and politics.

"We have the City of Chicago, which is the dominant political subdivision of the state, that is taking an adverse position to the Bears," Ganis said. "Do they have enough political clout in Springfield to cause the Bears problems there?"

Churchill Downs announced in February 2021 that the Arlington racetrack would be going up for sale, and its last horseraces were held in September of the same year.

That same month, the Bears agreed to purchase the Arlington racetrack property for $197 million  

The Bears have been playing at Soldier Field since 1971 – they shared Wrigley Field with the Cubs before that. The most recent stadium renovation took place in 2003.

The stadium went through massive renovations nearly two decades ago at a cost of over $600 million. Even with the upgrade, Soldier Field still has a capacity of only 61,500, smallest in the NFL. There are 13 stadiums that hold more than 70,000.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has repeatedly expressed a desire to keep the Bears at Soldier Field. In July of last year, the Chicago Park District officials unveiled options for renovating Soldier Field, including a possible dome over the lakefront arena.

In January, these plans were carried further as Landmark Development released a virtual tour of a revamped Soldier Field. The proposal centers on a brand-new glass dome that would shield the interior from the elements and potentially draw interest from a wide variety of partners.

The reimagined stadium would include an immersive fan experience, premium club lounges, and signature food halls while improving access to the stadium and an entertainment destination district located across the street from the field, according to Landmark Development.     

But also in January, new Bears President and Chief Executive Officer Kevin Warren made it clear he's ready to lead the team's move out of the city and into a new stadium in Arlington Heights.

Warren said last month that the Bears' sole focus for a new stadium is the Arlington Heights site, and they are not considering any options to stay at Soldier Field, the smallest stadium in the NFL.

Nevertheless, in response to the Bears' announcement, Mayor Lightfoot's office issued a statement that she still wants to the Bears to stay in Chicago. The statement said the Bears had legal restrictions in the pre-purchase phase, and now that the deal has closed, the city can begin direct negotiations to keep the Bears from leaving.

"So, now that the land deal has closed, we have an even better opportunity to continue making the business case as to why the Bears should remain in Chicago and why adaptations to Soldier Field can meet and exceed all of the Bears' future needs," the statement read in part.

Mayor Lightfoot is also in a heated race for reelection. In a January mayoral forum, she and her eight challengers were asked what, if anything, they would do to try to keep the Bears in Chicago -- just after Warren made it clear he was ready to lead the team's move to Arlington Heights.

"We're not done yet. We're not letting the Bears go. We're going to fight, fight, fight to keep them at Soldier Field," Mayor Lightfoot said at the January forum. "We've got a plan that we presented. I think they're interested. We're going to keep talking."

But some of the candidates were less than sanguine about the Bears staying in Chicago even being a possibility at this point.

"I think the Arlington deal is too profitable. We blew it. We had an opportunity to negotiate with them. We didn't," mayoral candidate Paul Vallas said at the forum. "You can't insult them and then bring them back to the negotiating table."

"I'm a fan," mayoral candidate Roderick Sawyer said at the forum. "But unless you can put 20,000 to 30,000 additional people in those stands, I don't think it can work – sorry."

According to published reports, the Bears' lease at Soldier Field runs through 2033, but would require them to pay the city only $84 million in damages if they were to break their lease in 2026, which would likely be the earliest they could expect to build and move into the new stadium in Arlington Heights.

With at least those two more years to go at Soldier Field, Ganis says we should not expect any sudden moves from the team.

"I would expect that the Bears will be methodical in their approach," he said. "They're not going to be rushed into it."

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