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Legislature won’t act on Bears’ stadium funding request this spring, lawmakers say

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SPRINGFIELD — The Chicago Bears’ appeal for more than $2 billion in public assistance to build a new domed stadium on a reimagined lakefront is on hold until at least the fall, high-ranking Democratic lawmakers confirmed Saturday.

With state lawmakers still grappling with the state budget after blowing their self-imposed Friday deadline, state Sen. Bill Cunningham of Chicago, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate, said there would be no action on the team’s request before the legislature adjourns for the spring.

State Rep. Kam Buckner of Chicago, a member of House Democratic leadership, likewise said the team’s quest for a new home to replace aging Soldier Field, which lies in his district, isn’t on the legislative agenda in the waning days of session.

“It’s fair to say that there won’t be any Bears action … in this legislative session, which I think is fine,” Buckner said Saturday at the state Capitol. “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.

“So I welcome conversations that will probably begin to happen once we’re done here.”

Despite the full backing of Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson, who stood with team officials when they unveiled their proposal last month, the Bears’ plan received a cool reception in Springfield.

It’s the second year in a row that talks about public support for the charter NFL franchise have stalled at the statehouse. A proposal last year that would have helped the team relocate to Arlington Heights also failed to gain support in the Democratic-controlled General Assembly.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office called the team’s latest bid to stay in Chicago a “non-starter” in its initial form, and the team’s efforts to round up support among legislative leaders and rank-and-file lawmakers were met with reactions ranging from firm and outspoken opposition to indifference.

When the team showed off its plans with great fanfare in April, Bears President and CEO Kevin Warren attempted to put pressure on legislators to take action this spring.

“If we are approved in May, then that will allow us to be able to start construction, to put people to work, next summer,” Warren said in response to a question about whether the team’s proposal could wait until the legislature’s fall session. “And that would allow us 36 months later to open our building in 2028. So this is truly one of those adages that time is money.”

The Bears’ plan calls for the team to bring $2.3 billion in private financing to the table, including a $300 million stadium loan from the NFL, but the stadium itself is projected to cost $3.2 billion.

To fill in the gap, the team wants the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority to issue $900 million in new bonds to cover the remaining cost. Each year that the project doesn’t move forward, the funding gap would increase by about $150 million due to rising costs, team officials said.

Additionally, the team wants ISFA to refinance about $430 million in outstanding debt for previous projects at Soldier Field and Guaranteed Rate Field, where the Chicago White Sox play.

The Bears also want the state agency to borrow about $160 million more to set up a liquidity fund to cover future shortfalls in the dedicated 2% city hotel tax that’s dedicated to repaying the bonds. When those revenues fall short, as they have in recent years, the difference gets taken out of the city’s share of state income tax revenue.

Bears officials say the roughly $1.5 billion in new borrowing, which would require legislative approval, could be paid off over 40 years without raising the 2% hotel tax. Including interest and other long-term costs, taxpayers would end up spending about $4.8 billion over four decades, according to ISFA.

The Bears’ proposal would leave little, if any, room for funding other stadium projects at a time when the White Sox also have looked to Springfield for help financing a new stadium at The 78, a proposed development along the Chicago River south of Roosevelt Road.

At the same time, framing it as an issue of equity, Pritzker and some Democratic lawmakers have said any stadium funding discussions should include professional women’s teams, such as the Chicago Red Stars soccer club, which also is in the market for a new home to replace SeatGeek Stadium in suburban Bridgeview.

Sen. Robert Peters, a Chicago Democrat whose district covers Soldier Field, said on Thursday that the Bears and White Sox need to work together to have any chance for securing new stadiums, and that women’s professional sports teams, such as the Red Stars and the WNBA’s Chicago Sky, should also be in the mix for those discussions. Legislation that would authorize bond authority for the construction of a stadium for a women’s pro sports team was introduced earlier this month without any movement so far.

” 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.”

On top of the borrowing to pay for the stadium itself, the Bears are looking for another $1.5 billion in public money for infrastructure improvements to the lakefront to fully realize the team’s vision, including plans to demolish most of Soldier Field and create more lakefront green space. The latter proposal could be a key component in fending off advocates who previously defeated “Star Wars” creator George Lucas’ plans for a lakefront museum of narrative art.

While the state has helped finance previous projects for the Sox and Bears, public sentiment largely has turned against public assistance for professional sports stadiums, which economists generally agree fail to deliver promised benefits for taxpayers.

Further complicating the issue for the Bears is the team’s previous $197 million purchase of the former Arlington International Racecourse, where the team planned to build a stadium and mixed-use development before getting mired in a property tax dispute with local school districts in the northwest suburbs.

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Dan Petrella, Jeremy Gorner , 2024-05-26 05:41:37

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