Chicago Bears’ drive for new stadium stalled in 2023 — but options remain open as talks with Arlington Heights continue – Boston Herald
Another Chicago Bears season is drawing to a close with no breakthroughs in sight for a new stadium — but those involved on all sides say they’re working on it. And a new draft document among the team and Arlington Heights officials suggests potential progress.
Last month, the village held an online meeting with the Bears to discuss a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, according to documents the Tribune obtained through a Freedom of Information request.
The online gathering included invitations to Bears President and CEO Kevin Warren and general counsel Cliff Stein, along with Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes and other village officials.
A memorandum of understanding is a written agreement between parties, typically outlining mutual expectations. It is not necessarily legally binding. In this case, the draft document, which was not released, could address property taxes for the former Arlington International Racecourse for the years 2023 and 2024, among other issues,
In February, the Bears closed the deal to buy the site for $197 million, with plans to build a new enclosed stadium there as part of a massive $5 billion residential and entertainment development.
After the deal, Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s office raised its valuation of the site close to the sale price, which would hike the annual property tax from about $3 million when it was a racetrack to $16 million.
The primary recipients of those property taxes would be three local school districts – Palatine Community Consolidated School District 15, Arlington Heights-based Township High School District 214, and Palatine-based Township High School District 211.
The schools agreed with the former site owner, Churchill Downs, Inc., to set taxes for 2022 at about $8 million, about triple what they paid before abruptly closing the track in 2021. But Warren noted that the site remains dormant, and said that the schools’ proposal to keep the Churchill Downs tax for the property was a “nonstarter” and “not viable.”
This summer, talks between the parties broke down, and the team tore down the deluxe grandstand at the track to lower its property value. But Hayes recently disclosed that communications have resumed between the schools and the team.
This month, the schools released news that they had gotten two independent appraisals by MaRous & Company valuing the site at $160 million — less than the county’s figure, but still a substantial increase.
Hayes would not comment on the memorandum of understanding, but records showed a text message on his phone stated, “Had a good call with Lisa at (District 15). She says that they are committed to working with all to getting it resolved and agrees there is a middle ground number. She was at least aware that MOU is being discussed.”
Because property taxes are so unpredictable in Cook County, the Bears, the schools and the village all have an interest in agreeing on taxes so they have a reliable basis for budgeting future expenses, property tax attorney Molly Phelan said.
The Bears have said they’ll pay for the $2 billion stadium, but need public subsidies for infrastructure like utilities and roads. Two potential subsidies would be tax increment financing (TIF) or a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) which could freeze taxes going to taxing bodies for 30 to 40 years–making the current negotiations extremely important.
The Bears can argue that they paid above market value for the site because it uniquely fits their needs for a new stadium, while Illinois law requires uniformity with other similar properties, Phelan said. It may be difficult to find comparable properties for price comparisons, she said, but a typical price of $2.50 per square foot for unimproved commercial land would yield a value closer to $35 million.
Given the risks versus the reward for all parties, Phelan said, “They should be willing to come to an agreement.”
School officials released an update this month stating that they “continue to be supportive” of a Bears development. The three districts said they have been engaged in conversations on “wide-ranging topics” with the Bears and the village, including resolving the 2023 property assessment.
School districts routinely defend against assessment reductions of commercial properties, because cuts on those sites increase the tax burden on homeowners and can reduce funding for education.
The assessments normally are settled through a compromise between the values in the appraisals submitted by the property owner and the schools, as in the case of Churchill Downs. The Bears told the schools they will provide their own appraisal before the end of this year. Whatever property value arrived at would be subject to approval by the county Board of Review.
Village officials have made Arlington Park redevelopment a priority, but said they will only support it if it would produce a net financial benefit for Arlington Heights and surrounding communities.
Mayor Hayes is definitely a fan, writing of the village’s ongoing effort to “make it happen,” in an email to Warren and Bears Chairman George McCaskey, and signing it, “Go Bears!”
Team officials have said they continue to look into a variety of possible destinations. Naperville, Waukegan, Richton Park, and Rockford have pitched potential sites. The team also reportedly surveyed the parking lot south of Soldier Field, though any sites beyond Arlington Heights and Chicago seem like long shots.
The Bears have a lease at Soldier Field through 2033, but could negotiate a payment to leave early. The team began playing there in 1971.
In response, the Bears referred to a September statement from Warren that the team continues discussion with Arlington Heights and Chicago, and was not seeking legislation to support a move while it explores “all opportunities.”
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