Imagining Soldier Field without the Chicago Bears – Chicago Tribune newstrendslive

As the Chicago Bears have marched inexorably downfield toward a prospective new suburban home, so has Mayor Lori Lightfoot taken steps to imagine a future at Soldier Field without them while trying to make the case they should stay put.

The divorce is far from a foregone conclusion, even after team officials announced Wednesday the long-awaited purchase of land in Arlington Heights where they could build a stadium and futuristic entertainment and housing combo complex. The Bears have simply taken the next step, one they’ve been telegraphing for over a year.

But as the Lightfoot administration and the team get down to the brass tacks of figuring out whether the Bears will leave, it’s worth revisiting what the area in and around the historic lakefront stadium could look like if it is stripped of its longtime, highest-profile tenant.

Friends of the Parks Executive Director Juanita Irizarry served on a 2022 panel Lightfoot created to figure out what a modernized Museum Campus could look like with or without the Bears.

If the team leaves Soldier Field, Irizarry said she hopes the stadium can host many more concerts each year, easing the increasingly controversial burden on neighborhood parks for big musical events such as Riot Fest in Douglass Park and the recently announced Re:SET festival in Riis Park.

“A review of the Park District budget over the past few years would reveal that the Park District has actually been growing its revenue in terms of using Soldier Field for more events that are non-football events, and there’s more potential there,” Irizarry said. “But the limitations that have been imposed by a contract with the Bears have really gotten in the way of further growth of that revenue. So we think this would be a great chance to look at that.”

In 2021, Lightfoot responded to news of the Bears looking for a greener gridiron with a multipronged approach. She made a pitch for them to stay, saying she was committed to keeping them in the city and, in typically hard-nosed fashion, said she expected the team to follow through on its commitment to Chicago. The Bears’ lease for Soldier Field runs through 2033 but it can be broken if the team pays a penalty.

In a statement Wednesday in response to the Bears closing on the suburban sale, the Lightfoot administration said the mayor remains dedicated to reaching a deal to keep the team’s home stadium at Soldier Field.

“Today’s news about the closure of the Bears’ option in Arlington Heights has been anticipated for some time. Nonetheless, all of us die-hard Bears’ fans, the Mayor included, know and believe that the Chicago Bears should remain in Chicago,” the statement read, underscoring that the team’s name is the “Chicago” Bears. “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 Bear’s future needs.”

The team’s move to finally buy the former Arlington International Racecourse parcel could actually make it easier for the city to try to work a deal for them to stay, while the Lightfoot administration prepares for a potentially Bears-less future.

The Bears have repeatedly responded in recent months to questions about their plans by reiterating that due to “mutual agreement with the seller of (the Arlington Heights) property, we are not pursuing alternative stadium deals or sites, including renovations to Soldier Field, while we are under contract.”

Now they are free to negotiate again, though it remains to be seen whether they have any interest in seriously considering staying in the city.

Veteran political strategist Delmarie Cobb, for one, thinks the Bears’ ship has already sailed.

“I think really now that they’ve seen the other side of the fence, and the grass is greener, I think they’re really going to pursue Arlington Heights and this is not really being used as a bargaining chip,” Cobb said. “I think they see a way to have multiple revenue streams for themselves, where they didn’t before and I think that’s what’s really driving this whole decision.”

While the city’s working group imagined a Soldier Field without the Bears, it also proposed ideas to keep them at the lakefront stadium and “to develop a vision for a more accessible, relevant, and attractive Museum Campus that is activated year-round.”

A Chicago Bears fan takes a selfie while standing in the rain before a game between the Bears and the San Francisco 49ers at Soldier Field in Chicago on Sept. 11, 2022.

Last July, the group released a report calling for technology upgrades inside the stadium to improve the fan experience and a potential naming-rights deal to raise more money for the Chicago Park District that owns it.

It also called for Soldier Field to be better connected with the surrounding lakefront.

“Additional attractions should be integrated into the stadium or into areas adjacent to the Museum Campus. These attractions could enhance the game day experience while also encouraging visitors to explore the campus on non-gamedays,” the report stated. “Additional restaurants could improve visitor experience during major events but be incorporated in ways that also allow them to be convenient, accessible options to serve the public on nonevent days. This would make Soldier Field more dynamic while addressing a campuswide scarcity of food and beverage options.”

And Lightfoot unveiled plans in July to tailor Soldier Field to a future with or without the team, announcing a proposal to enclose the stadium with a dome, rebuild it to make it “dome ready” with columns at both end zones or modify the venue as a multipurpose facility better suited for soccer “while improving its flexibility” for other events.

That project could cost $2.2 billion or more. Lightfoot hasn’t said how the city would pay for the project.

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