Soldier Field on Nov. 19, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — The Bears are expected to detail possible plans for moving to the suburbs — but Chicago has backup plans, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said.

The Bears have for months made clear they’re looking at abandoning Soldier Field and moving to Arlington Heights. Team officials are scheduled to present conceptual plans for an Arlington Heights stadium at a 7-9 p.m. Thursday meeting at John Hersey High School in the suburbs.

Lightfoot, speaking at an unrelated news conference Tuesday morning, said the city has made a “compelling case” for the Bears to stay here. She still hopes the team will decide to remain in Chicago, she said.

“We’re gonna continue our discussions with the league,” Lightfoot said. “We’ve got Plan B, Plan C and others in the works as well if the Bears decide they’re going to abandon the city of Chicago.

“I hope they don’t. And we’re gonna keep fighting that fight as long as we possibly can.”

Lightfoot didn’t say what those backup plans entail, though she’s hinted she could try to bring another team to Chicago or the city could redevelop Soldier Field and the surrounding area for concerts and other uses.

The announcement is the latest twist in the stadium drama between the Bears and the city of Chicago — a saga that dates back to the ’70s, when the team first threatened to leave Soldier Field for Arlington Heights.

The city and the Bears rebuilt Soldier Field in 2002, but it remains the smallest capacity stadium in the NFL. And the Bears are tenants of the Park District, meaning they pay rent and split many of the revenue streams.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has tried to convince the team to stay by offering to build a dome over the stadium, but many saw it as a Hail Mary with little chance of keeping the team within the city limits.

Churchill Downs put the historic track and its surrounding property for sale in February 2021 and then shut down racing operations at the end of last season. The racetrack was rebuilt after a 1985 fire and was long considered one of the premier racing venues in the country.

The Bears announced in September 2021 they had signed a purchase agreement — but that deal has lingered for nearly a year without being closed.

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When the Bears announced they were getting into the bidding, Lightfoot dismissed it as “clearly a negotiating tactic that the Bears have used before.” And she took a swipe, saying, “And like most Bears fans, we want the organization to focus on putting a winning team on the field, beating the Packers finally and being relevant past October. Everything else is just noise.”

The Bears’ lease at Soldier Field, the NFL’s smallest stadium with 61,500 seats, runs out in 2033. The Bears pay rent to the Park District for Soldier Field, split revenues and have little expansion possibilities. A move to a new site is expected to mean a potentially multi-billion-dollar, Bears-owned complex that would create a flood of new revenue streams for the team. No details on how the Bears would finance the project have been revealed.

The Bears moved into the Park District-owned Soldier Field in 1971 but threatened a move to Arlington Heights several years later. Then-Mayor Richard J. Daley threatened to sue to block them from calling themselves the Chicago Bears if they moved. His son, Mayor Richard M. Daley, also had years of tense negotiations with the team, who threatened to move to Gary, Indiana, in 1995.

The Bears could break the Soldier Field lease as soon as 2026 by paying an $84 million penalty to the city, the Tribune has reported. That price tag goes down in future years.

Big city teams opting for more room in the suburbs is not unprecedented. The New York Giants and New York Jets moved out of the city decades ago for New Jersey. The San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys and Washington Football Team also play outside the cities they’re named after.

Lightfoot built a committee of civic leaders to come up with a new version of Soldier Field and the surrounding Museum Campus in hopes of keeping the Bears in town — or having a backup plan if they bolt.

A rendering shows what a Soldier Field dome could look like. Credit: City of Chicago

In late July, she unveiled her plan to build a dome over Soldier Field — a $2.2 billion dome proposal that was one of three options to improve the stadium as part of a grand plan to overhaul the lakefront’s Museum Campus. The other options would make the stadium “dome ready” for future construction or, if the Bears bolt for the suburbs, modernize it without a dome to make a stadium better suited for the Chicago Fire.

She said at the time “discussions are ongoing” with the Bears and the NFL — and she believes the team will take the dome proposal seriously.

“It would be foolish not to,” the mayor said.

And if they leave town, Lightfoot didn’t rule out trying to lure another NFL team to Chicago. Asked if the city would build a dome for another team, Lightfoot smiled slightly and said, “I can see that as an option, yes. Plenty of cities that have two NFL teams.”

If the dome was built, it would extensively modernize the facility, enclosing the field to make it available year-round. The dome would sit on four “super columns” built around the existing structure, making it climate controlled.

The dome project would boost capacity from the current NFL low of 61,500 to 70,000. It would add seven additional suites for a total of 140, six new clubs and four times as much space for food and beverage sales.

“An improved Soldier Field will deliver a world-class visitor experience,” Lightfoot said. “Furthermore, any of these proposed renovations will allow Soldier Field to retain its role as an economic engine for Chicago for years to come, as these changes will allow us to keep bringing sports, music and other exciting events to our city.”

The dome project is designed by Robert Dunn, known for developing the stadiums for NFL teams like the Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings and others. He’s also president of Landmark Development, the group behind the potentially $20 billion One Central development proposed to soar over the train tracks just west of Soldier Field.

Dunn said the dome project will be a far cheaper alternative for the Bears than packing up and heading to Arlington Heights.

Lightfoot has been adamant that she will “do anything” to keep the Bears in Chicago, previously saying the city would make “an extraordinarily compelling economic case” for the team to remain at Soldier Field.

Lightfoot and her deputies did not detail how they plan to finance a dome, but did say it could involve NFL financing, naming rights revenue and debt. Lightfoot said “of course” taxpayer money would be involved.  

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