After decades of griping about their fan-unfriendly throwback of an arena and a series of ill-fated plans to replace it, the Chicago Bears on Thursday finally won state backing to build a glitzy new stadium in the shell of Soldier Field.
The $587 million deal, approved in rapid-fire votes by the Illinois House and Senate after a week of intense political haggling, sets the stage for one of the National Football League's pioneer franchises to be playing by the start of the 2003 season in a state-of-the-art 63,000 seat facility with two jumbo video screens, 133 luxury suites, a restaurant and a new underground parking garage.
"It's been a roller-coaster of emotions," Bears President Ted Phillips said after the votes. "I'm just very grateful that it's turned out the way it has so far."
Gov. George Ryan immediately pledged to sign the bill, which passed the Republican controlled Senate 33-24 and cleared the Democratic run House 64-51.
Ryan said he spoke by phone after the vote with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and described the mayor as "absolutely delighted. ... The mayor said that he was happy that it was done and that he was going to get out his hard hat and go to work."
While lawmakers gave the Bears and Daley an early Christmas present, they ended the fall veto session without taking final action on other high-profile proposals, including a bill passed earlier by the Senate that would have killed for good the 5 percent state sales tax on gasoline.
Last summer, the General Assembly suspended the tax for six months to give motorists a break from pump prices were soaring above $2 a gallon. The moratorium expires on Dec. 31, so the legislature's failure to act means gasoline prices in Illinois will almost surely bump up several pennies a gallon on New Year's Day.
The session also ended with lawmakers rejecting a tax rebate for senior citizens, declining to fund $1-an-hour raises for workers who care for the developmentally disabled, opting against pumping more money into a health insurance program for people unable to get it elsewhere, and rejecting proposed rules to protect customers of payday loan companies from spiraling debt.
"Sometimes our priorities seem just a little bit out of whack to me," said Rep. Bill Black (R-Danville), an opponent of the stadium bill.
Chicago area residents in the Loop Thursday came down strongly on both sides of the deal.
"Why don't we spend the money on schools for our kids?" said Joe Simpson, a father of two and an electrician who works downtown. "Or the homeless living in boxes?"
Others complained about a Bears plan to help finance the stadium by requiring many season ticket holders to buy personal seat licenses for thousands of dollars.
"The guys in the cheap seats won't be able to afford them anymore," said Mike Quinn, a South Side engineer.
But Shaun Janus, who called himself an avid Bears supporter, said he liked preserving the tradition of football on the shore of Lake Michigan and keeping the architectural identity of the Soldier Field, including its columns.
"I'm among those who like that we are preserving something from the past," he said. "It was good for Chicago without raising taxes, and it forced the Bears to put money into it."
Thursday's vote was a remarkable photo-finish for a project that the Bears and Daley unveiled publicly only two weeks ago.
The Bears deployed a team of big-gun lobbyists, including former Gov. Jim Thompson, who steered the legislation to build Comiskey Park through the General Assembly in 1988 and freely wandered through Capitol corridors and his old executive office over the last few days.
Phillips repeatedly pressed legislators to take quick action because the team feared it would lose a $100 million loan from the NFL to help pay for the stadium. The Bears also will put up $100 million, funded largely by personal seat licenses. And receipts from Chicago's 2 percent hotel-motel tax, the same funding source now used to pay off the bonds that financed Comiskey Park, will be tapped for $387 million in Soldier Field construction bonds.
Among other amenities contemplated in the stadium package will be 19 acres of new parkland around Soldier Field, new roadwork to upgrade the traffic flow into the stadium area and $22 million in future infrastructure upgrades at Comiskey Park, where fans complain about the steepness of the upper deck.
The plan will require demolition of the Chicago Park District headquarters, now at the north end of Soldier Field. Park offices will be moved to an undetermined site. Since the district owns Soldier Field and the Bears pay rent to use it, the package also includes millions of dollars to compensate the district for lost revenue during the 2002 season when the new field will be under construction and the Bears will have to play elsewhere, most likely at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Putting together the final roll calls came only after lawmakers wrangled over potentially deal-breaking add-ons, including suggestions for amendments to keep Meigs Field open past 2002, when Daley plans to close it, or to lure the St. Louis Cardinals to Illinois.
But Daley vehemently opposed the Meigs provision and let it be known he would walk away from the stadium deal if keeping Meigs open was part of it. The Cardinals plan was defeated Wednesday.
In the end, the key was an agreement between Republicans and the city to include language in the bill that ensures that the city, not the state, will be left holding the financial bag if hotel-motel tax revenues fail to cover the annual cost of the construction bonds.
In Chicago, Daley assured city taxpayers that they had no reason to worry about being on the hook. The city's hotel business is "very, very strong," Daley said. "It keeps growing tremendously."
Senate President James "Pate" Philip (R-Wood Dale) also said the legislation ensures that the state has "no liability whatsoever. ... That certainly has been satisfied to anybody's skeptical mind."
But some lawmakers remained skeptical nonetheless.
"Illinois taxpayers will be paying taxes for the next 30 years to finance this," said Black, one of the chief critics of the bill.
Most suburban Chicago Republicans voted against the bill, and some criticized the deal as overly generous to the Bears. One sports industry source estimated that the Bears would realize about $40 million in new revenue in the first year of operation.
Phillips said the Bears have committed $200 million--an amount entailing significant risk.
"If we're able to reap any rewards, it's only going to be due to the fact that everything falls in line and we're able to sell tickets and we're able to sell advertising," he said. "Will we benefit economically? Yes we will. We've never hid that intention. How much we'll benefit is anybody's guess."
The stadium vote is the culmination of a long road for Virginia McCaskey, the owner and the daughter of the legendary George "Papa Bear" Halas.
"The Bears have worked tirelessly on this for many years, and all those who have been involved can take pride in today's action," she said.
To Philip, though, there's more to the package than a glitzy stadium, new parkland, underground parking and a sledding hill:
"I just ask the Bears one thing, one request out of this whole thing: Bring back a winner."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun