Yet the soccer stadium also has become a model of what can go wrong when a little town takes massive development gambles in a state with loose borrowing and ethics laws: Politicians and insiders benefit, while taxpayers are stuck covering budget-busting losses.
- Public funds, private interests intersect in building owned by Bridgeview mayor
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Broken promise: Read a 2002 pitch town leaders made to voters for more power, and how it was broken.
Failed projections: See how town leaders vowed the stadium wouldn't lose money.
Heavy losses: Examine the town's latest audit, with explanations showing the stadium losing money and town with heavy debt.
Higher taxes coming: Read a ratings agency's criticism of town finances, along with a town plan to hike taxes.
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S Harlem Ave & W 71st St, Bridgeview, IL 60455, USA
To help make its payments, the village has nearly tripled the Bridgeview property tax bill in less than a decade for the town's mostly modest ranch homes and plans to boost that burden far higher.
Residents are left frustrated. "Something has got to give," retired tollway worker Andy Staniszewski said.
The hulking, red-brick Toyota Park rises impressively from the side of gritty Harlem Avenue, its canopies jutting into the sky. The village-owned stadium is not only home to the Chicago Fire, but also hosts major music shows.
And since opening in 2006, it has come up millions of dollars short of making its huge debt payments. The yearly shortfalls are sometimes as big as the town's annual police budget, and they've helped sink the southwest suburb's credit rating to among the Chicago area's worst.
Still, not everyone in town is losing.
The big borrowing created a torrent of cash that, in part, went to companies tied to high-level village employees, the town leaders' political supporters and even companies linked to the mayor's family.
Plus, campaign contributions from those profiting at the stadium have helped bankroll a rarely challenged local political machine that recently elevated its leader, Mayor Steven Landek, to the Illinois Senate. The machine also has put thousands of dollars in rent payments into the mayor's pocket each year.
Landek would not agree to an interview, but in emails, spokesman Ray Hanania blamed the economy for the stadium shortfalls and said nothing was done illegally or unethically. He chided the Tribune for questioning the project.
"Toyota Park has been the best thing to ever happen to Bridgeview. It's brought a new spirit and pride and regional attention," he said. "The Fire is a remarkable team, far better than the Tribune's properties. ..."
Good-government advocates, however, question years of deals involving the soccer stadium that appear rife with conflicts of interest, and financial experts blame the resulting losses on more than a bad economy. Among the critics is H. Woods Bowman, a former state lawmaker and county financial officer who now teaches government finance at DePaul University.
"It's hard to see how it could have turned out much worse than it did," Bowman said.
Bridgeview's story is a sobering reminder for taxpayers across the Chicago region, most of whom live in towns that have almost unlimited power to borrow and tax without voter approval. When ambitious ventures fall flat, generations of taxpayers may pay the price.
It started for Bridgeview residents with a seemingly innocuous vote for "home rule" in 2002 — a vote that many towns have taken. But in Bridgeview's case, that vote would lead to a trail of broken promises, risky gambles and sweetheart deals that helped put the town's 16,446 residents on the hook for more than $230 million.
The state constitution allows large towns to borrow at will. Small towns need residents' OK for each big project — or, they can get voters to approve "home rule" powers that include nearly unlimited borrowing authority, forever. Landek pushed for the latter in 2002, telling residents it would ensure a "stable future."
The stadium was not mentioned in the village newsletters then. Officials proposed a sales tax hike to ease property taxes. Voters agreed by a 2-to-1 ratio.