As construction at Soldier Field advances, a Tribune analysis of the $632 million project shows that the public bill for the stadium renovation is higher than city officials have said it would be while benefits to taxpayers--in terms of promised parkland and additional park revenues--fall short of what was promised.
The bottom line is that the new Chicago Bears stadium will get one of the largest government contributions in the history of professional sports, a fact obscured by a public-relations strategy that tried to divert attention from the public costs. Among the Tribune's findings:
- While Mayor Richard Daley praised the Bears' $200 million contribution to the project as "unheard of" for a publicly owned stadium, neither the mayor nor anyone else involved in the project noted that the city's contribution also might be unprecedented.
- Officials with the Chicago Park District, which owns Soldier Field, have called the renovated stadium a good deal for the agency. But an internal Park District analysis shows the agency will make $900,000 less the first full year the stadium is open, figures that officials now dispute. Meanwhile, the new stadium is expected to double the value of the Bears franchise, experts said.
- Proponents of the stadium renovation pointed to the creation of 19 acres of parkland for Chicagoans. But officials counted landscaped medians and sloped berms beside a parking garage as part of the acreage, according to one of the project's architects, Dirk Lohan.
In reality, only about 10 acres of usable parkland is being created, according to an analysis by Friends of the Parks, which is suing to stop the renovation. The lawsuit could be decided at a hearing Thursday.
"You're not able to play on a slope or on the middle of a roadway," said Erma Tranter, the group's president.
The strategy to sell the Soldier Field renovations, mapped out in a 1999 memo by the Bears' public-relations firm, was based on emphasizing the new stadium's amenities, such as new parkland and expanded lakefront parking in an underground garage, while downplaying public costs for the Bears facility.
"The problem with the current debate is that it is too often about the Chicago Bears and not about the future of Chicago and its prized lakefront," according to the memo, crafted by the firm, Burson-Marsteller. The public-relations advisers recommended a strategy that includes changing "the conversation from `public funding for the Chicago Bears stadium needs' to a civic-led discussion" about such things as preserving Soldier Field as a landmark and "doing things right, the Chicago way," said the memo, a copy of which was obtained by the Tribune.
The Soldier Field deal contradicts previous public statements from the mayor and Gov. George Ryan, who had balked at government financing for the stadium.
It also ran counter to a trend in the NFL in which teams in lucrative markets such as the Washington Redskins and the New England Patriots are paying most of the costs for their privately owned stadiums, the Tribune analysis found.
Meanwhile, in nearly every other city where government subsidies were used for a publicly owned NFL stadium in the last decade, a referendum was held to ask voters whether they approved of the idea. In Chicago, the city went to court to stop a proposed referendum on the plan.
Daley on Saturday defended his support for the Soldier Field project, saying the $200 million private contribution was unprecedented and the public portion was paid for by taxes on hotel rooms, not property taxes.
Had the city not proceeded with the stadium deal, the mayor said, "Soldier Field, what are you going to do with it?"
Daley appeared to confirm the Friends of the Parks allegation that the project would only create 10 acres of usable parkland, not 17. "They're building 10 acres of open space and another seven acres of landscape in all of that. That's what you need to make it environmentally friendly."
The city's longtime point man on the Soldier Field deal, Edward Bedore, a former city budget director who now is a lobbyist for the city, Park District Supt. David Doig and other Park District officials declined to be interviewed.
Bears Chief Executive Officer Ted Phillips and former Bears President Michael McCaskey declined to comment.
Barnaby Dinges, a public relations consultant for the project, said the Park District will save money in the long term by not paying the increasing costs of maintaining an old, deteriorating stadium.