Unlikely allies? Suburban mayor, GOP legislator backs Bears’ lakefront plan

Rosemont Mayor Brad Stephens, who also is the assistant House minority leader in the General Assembly, publicly backed the Bears’ plans for a new Chicago lakefront stadium on Monday. “I think the Chicago Bears belong in Chicago,” he said.
Karie Angell Luc for the Daily Herald

The governor of Illinois and top leaders in both chambers of the state legislature have thrown cold water on the Bears’ request for public subsidies to develop a new Chicago lakefront stadium.

But the plan has a key supporter who wields influence in the Northwest suburbs, city of Chicago and hallways of the state Capitol in Springfield: Brad Stephens.

The Rosemont mayor, who doubles as assistant House minority leader, publicly endorsed the plan Monday. Stephens — the sole Republican legislator whose district includes Chicago — also spoke of forging a relationship with an unlikely ally: Democratic Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson.

“I’m bullish on the Sox and Bears. I believe in investing in those types of deals,” Stephens said after the monthly Rosemont village board meeting Monday morning. “They’re good for Chicago and Illinois.”

With less than two weeks to go in the spring legislative session, pitches for taxpayer help from White Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and Bears President/CEO Kevin Warren have failed to picked up much steam with legislators, who would have to approve an extension of Illinois Sports Facilities Authority bonds to help finance construction of new stadiums.

Stephens was among the legislators to meet with Reinsdorf during a lobbying visit in February. Before Warren and Johnson’s public reveal of the new Bears stadium plans last month, Stephens said he and House Minority Leader Tony McCombie of Savanna viewed the Bears’ presentation via Zoom meetings.

Stephens called the lakefront proposal “spectacular.”

“I think the Chicago Bears belong in Chicago,” said Stephens, who represents the 20th District — more than half of which is on the city’s Northwest Side.

The Chicago Bears have unveiled designs for a new domed stadium on the parking lot south of Soldier Field. The team has pledged $2 billion toward the project, but is looking for at least that much in taxpayer money for a multiphased redevelopment on the Museum Campus.
Courtesy of the Chicago Bears

He said he respects lakefront protection group Friends of the Parks, which successfully fended off filmmaker George Lucas’ attempt to develop a museum on the same Soldier Field parking lot where the Bears want to build. But Stephens believes in “energizing” the lakefront, from McCormick Place to the new Obama Presidential Library.

“But if you want to preserve the lakefront, go to Indiana and be the state dunes,” Stephens said.

“Everyone’s trying to poke holes” in the plan, added Stephens, who lauded Warren for being pointed in trying to sell it to skeptical politicians and the public.

Amid the increasing unpopularity of public funding for professional sports stadiums — of which tiny Rosemont operates three — Stephens noted the Bears’ commitment to provide $2.3 billion of the estimated $4.7 billion redevelopment cost.

He questioned why the Bears aren’t getting a similar shake as Rivian Automotive, which received a $827 million state incentive package earlier this month to expand its Normal electric vehicle plant, or Gotion, which got $536 million for an electric vehicle lithium battery manufacturing plant in Manteno.

“Why aren’t we doing something for the Bears?” Stephens said. “They’re only a multibillion-dollar corporation if they sell the team. Another owner would be asking for quote-unquote a ‘handout’ too.”

The Bears are seeking legislative approval to refinance and extend ISFA bonds for 40 years. That agency was set up to maintain sports facilities — its bonds are backed by the 2% Chicago hotel tax — so Stephens argued those funds should only go to a stadium within Chicago.

Despite the Bears’ $197.2 million purchase of the Arlington Park property in Arlington Heights a little more than a year ago, the NFL franchise has set its sights on building a domed lakefront stadium that would be owned by the Chicago Park District.

Stephens has now joined Johnson as a cheerleader for the plan, though the two mayors didn’t talk about the Bears during a brief chat last Thursday at an Illinois AFL-CIO meeting. Instead, Stephens said he used the time to address a perceived “snub” of McCombie by Johnson, who met with all the other legislative leaders during his two-day visit to the Capitol.

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson was at the Bears’ April 24 news conference to support the team’s nearly $5 billion proposal for an enclosed stadium next door to Soldier Field.
Associated Press

“I said, ‘You gotta stop disrespecting my leader,’” Stephens said he told Johnson, who said he was caught in traffic.

Stephens said he understands that his caucus is on the other side of a Democratic supermajority, but there may be a time when Johnson’s agenda needs a few Republican votes — whether it’s Bears stadium funding or something else.

Johnson and McCombie are now scheduled to meet when she’s in town next month for a House GOP fundraiser at Carmine’s in Rosemont.

“‘I might not have been with you in the beginning, but I’m with you now,’” Stephens said he told Johnson. “A strong Chicago is good for Illinois.”

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