Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Wednesday called on the Chicago Bears to "come to the table" if they want changes made to Soldier Field after the team signed a purchase agreement this week for Arlington Park, but she made clear the city's iconic stadium will remain - with or without a football team to call it home.
Lightfoot again noted the team has a contract with the city through 2033, but said Soldier Field is an "incredible asset" regardless.
"I know that they've got a contract with us that runs through 2033 and, as I said to [George McCaskey], I'm not about breaking that contract and if they want to get out of it early, they're gonna have to pay us for it, but bottom line is, I want to talk to them," Lightfoot said during a press conference Wednesday. "I want to do what we can. I'm a Bears fan first and foremost. I want them to stay in the name city. And if we can keep them here we'll keep them here and we're gonna make every effort to do so. But as I said, stepping back from that, we've got to do a deal, that makes sense for the taxpayers of this city."
Lightfoot acknowledged the shortcomings with Soldier Field, the oldest stadium in the National Football League, including limited seating capacity and access difficulty, but said she believes there are "a lot of things we can do to enhance the fan and visitor experience that will obviously enhance the revenues for the Bears."
"But I'm not going to bargain against myself," she said. "They've got to come to the table and put their lists of asks on the table. I can't do anything about what their issues were from 20-plus years ago. That's not a productive conversation. What would be productive, is for them to come to the table now with a set of realistic asks and we will work with them to meet them where they are, but do it in a way that obviously is fiscally responsible for the taxpayers of the city."
Lightfoot said that while she's hopeful to continue discussions with the team in wake of the latest development, she's also looking forward to "what we can do outside of that to maximize revenues."
"We've already got a waiting list for opportunities in 2022, so I'm very bullish about what the future holds at Soldier Field," she said. "I hope the Bears are part of it, but I have a responsibility to make sure that we're doing everything that we can to maximize and catalyze that asset and I think there's more than we can do and I'm confident that we'll get there."
The Bears, Churchill Downs Incorporated and the Village of Arlington Heights said in a statement Wednesday that the team has signed a purchase and sale agreement "for the entire Arlington Park parcel in the Village of Arlington Heights."
"Finalizing the PSA was the critical next step in continuing our exploration of the property and its potential," Bears President and CEO Ted Phillips said in a statement.
Phillips noted "much work remains to be completed" before the transaction is closed, however, leaving room for debate on whether the team is still considering staying in the city.
"We will never stop working toward delivering Bears fans the very best experience," Phillips' statement read. "We will continue to provide updates on our progress at the appropriate time.”
The owners of the horse racing venue had announced earlier this year that they intend to sell the property for redevelopment, and recently held what will likely be the final weekend of racing at the iconic venue.
Churchill Downs Incorporated CEO Bill Carstanjen said the bidding process was "extraordinarily competitive" and congratulated the Bears on the recent agreement.
Earlier this year, the Bears were one of several interested parties that submitted bids for the property, with the likelihood being that they would use the site to build a new stadium.
“We recently submitted a bid to purchase the Arlington International Racecourse property,” Phillips said in a statement at the time. “It’s our obligation to explore every possible option to ensure we’re doing what’s best for our organization and its future. If selected, this step allows us to further evaluate the property and its potential.”
Officials in Arlington Heights paved the way for a stadium project with a vote earlier this summer.
The biggest stumbling block for any potential Bears relocation is their lease with the city of Chicago at Soldier Field. The team could opt out of the lease in 2026, with a financial penalty of more than $80 million to do so.
Lightfoot has repeatedly said that she is committed to keeping the Bears in Chicago, expressing a willingness to work with the team on potential renovations to the lakefront stadium.
She did, however, acknowledge the possibilities of a new stadium for the team, saying the property is "very lucrative."
"There's a lot of teams that don't play in a city for which they started," she said. "By my count there's 11. If you look at the two New York teams, LA teams, and there's about six or seven others. Life goes on. This is a very valuable asset. I'm going to keep working to keep them here in Chicago, I think that's in everybody's interest if we do it, but if they choose to go elsewhere, we're gonna maximize that asset."
The Bears previously discussed the possibility of building a stadium in Arlington Heights in the 1980s, but ultimately made the decision to renovate Soldier Field, with the state of Illinois raising funds to help the team do so. The Bears played at the University of Illinois football stadium for one season before debuting the new-look Soldier Field in 2003.