Mayor meets with Bears CEO after saying he wants to keep the team in Chicago

Tribune Content Agency

Mayor Brandon Johnson met with the Chicago Bears’ president and CEO Wednesday about their “shared … commitment to Chicago” as the NFL franchise floats interest in potentially moving to a suburb other than Arlington Heights.

News of the meeting was announced Wednesday, hours after Johnson again stated he wanted to keep the Bears in Chicago. Johnson spoke at an unrelated news conference when asked about the Bears flirting with a move to Naperville as the franchise’s push for state financial support and property tax breaks has stalled.

Johnson and Bears President and CEO Kevin Warren released a joint statement late Wednesday afternoon: “Today we met and discussed our shared values and commitment to the City of Chicago, the importance of deep roots and the need for equitable community investment throughout the city. We are both committed to the idea that the city and its major civic institutions must grow and evolve together to meet the needs of the future. We look forward to continuing the dialogue around these shared values.”

Neither the joint statement nor Johnson’s earlier comments offered specifics about what it would take to convince the team to remain in Chicago, but the mayor said it’s important to “have conversations.”

“I grew up with the ‘Super Bowl Shuffle.’ As I would say, as older people would say to young people, when I was young, ’85 Bears, Super Bowl shuffle, y’all don’t know nothing about that,” said Johnson, who was raised in suburban Elgin. “We want to make sure we can keep shuffling here in the city of Chicago with the Bears.”

“I want to make sure the ownership of the Chicago Bears, the Park District and the residents of the city of Chicago have a real seat at the table to discuss a pathway forward,” Johnson said, declaring himself “the hardest-working person in the city of Chicago” and promising to approach the discussions with “care, sensitivity and thoughtfulness.”

Keeping the Bears in Chicago or Soldier Field will require more than care, sensitivity or thoughtfulness as the team pursues a modern stadium that can compete with other sites across the country for national events like the Super Bowl or NCAA contests.

Bears officials met with Naperville Mayor Scott Wehrli on Friday to discuss the possibility of abandoning their plans for a new stadium development in Arlington Heights in favor of building it in the large western suburb, a move that could be used as bargaining leverage.

The Bears objected that recent tax hikes on the former Arlington Park racetrack, which the Bears bought this year and have begun demolishing, would result in taxes far higher than the property’s worth while it is not operational.

The team has also pursued financial incentives for infrastructure on the project that have struggled to find support in the state legislature.

But the team is eager to leave Soldier Field, the smallest and one of the least modern stadiums in the NFL.

Dealing with the Bears’ threatened departure is a political challenge. While few people support public funding for a new stadium — particularly as city taxpayers remain on the hook for costly renovations to Soldier Field designed to keep the team in 2004 — losing the NFL franchise could be a blow to the city’s image.

Johnson’s predecessor, Lori Lightfoot, attempted to head off criticism by floating plans to install a dome over Soldier Field, a costly idea that the Bears have not expressed interest in. It’s unclear what steps Johnson is willing to take to keep the team in the city limits.