Mayor Lori Lightfoot should consider renaming Soldier Field to raise money and “explore the feasibility” of enclosing the stadium with a dome or roof, recommended an advisory panel she appointed to study Chicago’s museum campus.
The panel’s work marks Lightfoot’s attempt to keep the Chicago Bears exploring a possible move to Arlington Heights, deflect blame if the venerable sports team leaves, and identify potential ways to improve a stretch of land that includes the Adler Planetarium , The Field, includes museum, the Shedd Aquarium and the lakefront building McCormick Place.
The Lightfoot panel recommends converting Solidarity Drive into a year-round space, creating educational programs for children, and adding large-scale art to rejuvenate the campus. For the museum campus, it recommends improving the CTA service, adding a trolley, and improving traffic in the area. Many of the report’s ideas are likely to face financial or political challenges while officials wait for the bears to make a decision and clarify their next steps.
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“Our beloved museum campus is an integral part of this city and requires special attention and care,” Lightfoot said in a statement. “The Museum Campus Working Group has provided us with a useful framework to guide this work and improve the (campus) overall.”
Although Lightfoot has made a point of highlighting the broader museum campus, it is the report’s recommendations pertaining to Soldier Field that will draw the most attention.
“To make better use of Soldier Field year-round, the city should also evaluate the feasibility of enclosing the stadium. Soldier Field is a lively, high-traffic venue from May through December. During this time, it is estimated that the stadium will host between 96,000 and 240,000 people each month. However, usage of the arena is much lower from January to April when the weather restricts use of the stadium’s outdoor areas,” the panel said.
“An estimated 1,200 to 66,800 people visit the stadiums each month during these colder months. While a closed venue is unlikely to attract many more major concerts due in part to limited tour windows, it would negate volatile weather conditions and allow Chicago to host coveted one-off events like the Super Bowl and NCAA Final Four Championship.
However, the report comes close to recommending the roof, saying: “Further analysis is needed to fully understand the specific costs, the potential direct and indirect economic impacts, and the full range of potential funding sources available to identify options that could.” are respectful to Chicago taxpayers.”
It is noted that the city should consider a sponsorship agreement with naming rights for Soldier Field, which was dedicated to soldiers in the 1920s. Sponsorship deals at other stadiums, including SoFi Stadium in California and MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, have each raised $400 million, the panel said. Other arenas — like the Caesars Superdome in New Orleans — show that one could keep “Soldier Field” in the name and continue to respect its legacy as a tribute to American soldiers while generating revenue, the panel said.
The Bears have played at Soldier Field since moving from Wrigley Field in 1971. They played the 2002 season at Champaign’s Memorial Stadium while Soldier Field underwent a $690 million renovation. The stadium, owned by the Chicago Park District, seats 61,500 fans, the smallest capacity in the NFL. It can be difficult to get to and is dated compared to newer football stadiums.
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The Bears signed a purchase agreement for Arlington International Racecourse last fall, which will close later this year at the earliest. While it’s not a done deal, the Bears’ interest in Arlington Heights sparked a heated debate over whether Chicago should attempt to keep the team, and at what cost. One benefit for the Bears of moving to Arlington Heights is that they could develop the 326-acre property surrounding the stadium with shopping, dining, and entertainment.
As she tries to determine if it’s possible to keep the team in Chicago, the mayor must also prepare for a post-Bears future on the lakefront so she can come up with a forward-looking plan to try to make up for the loss of revenue and civic Watch to cover when they go.
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Other recommendations include a suggestion that the city and other agencies “carefully evaluate” future options for Lakeside Center, part of McCormick Place Center, which is facing “declining occupancy and significant maintenance needs.” But any attempt to modernize the facility will likely be costly, and the 51-page report generally doesn’t address funding.
The panel also recommends introducing a free or low-cost trolley, citing a program that ran in Chicago in the early 2000s but was shut down in 2009 when federal and corporate funding dried up. How a similar program could avoid the same fate is unclear, though the report said it “should eventually become self-sustaining through revenue from campus-specific sources.”
Another proposal is the creation of a footbridge to the North Island.
“During the 1933-34 World’s Fair of the Century of Progress, held on either side of Burnham Harbour, the island was connected to the mainland by three bridges: one on what is now Solidarity Drive, another on 16th Street and one at the southern end of the peninsula,” says the report. “With that in mind, the working group recommends the creation of a new pedestrian bridge connecting to Northerly Island either at the latitude of approximately 16th or 18th Streets or at the southern end of the peninsula.”
However, further study would be required to recommend the most appropriate design and to accommodate existing boats in the harbor and their access to Lake Michigan, presenting logistical challenges.
Other suggestions address transportation to campus and Soldier Field, which can be a real challenge. Proposals include improvements to CTA bus service and other infrastructure changes.
For the next steps, Task Force Lightfoot recommends establishing a “stakeholder focal point” to work with the Park District, campus museums, city governments and others “to drive implementation of the recommendations outlined in this report.”