Kevin Warren presses ahead on Bears stadium pitch as Mayor Brandon Johnson and Gov. J.B. Pritzker stay quiet

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The Chicago Bears’ bid for billions of dollars in public assistance to build a new lakefront stadium was the elephant on the agenda Tuesday at the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting.

With a crowd of high-powered business leaders watching, Bears President and CEO Kevin Warren repeated his pitch for the new domed stadium in a keynote address. He presented the stadium as a surefire growth starter for downtown Chicago.

“You cannot make progress only playing defense,” Warren said.

But by the time he gave his impassioned plea, the two most pivotal members of the audience — Mayor Brandon Johnson and Gov. J.B. Pritzker — had left the event. Pritzker has not yet met with Bears officials about their stadium plan, and has publicly expressed deep skepticism about the funding aspect.

In their first public appearance together since the team’s pricey proposal that’s backed by the mayor floundered during the Illinois General Assembly’s spring session, Pritzker and Johnson stayed mum on the topic during their own remarks to the chamber audience. Warren filled the void for onlookers curious about the plan, carefully appealing to nostalgia, business interest and ego alike as he re-upped the hot-button request.

Warren began his speech by invoking the memory of legendary team founder George Halas and celebrating the Bears’ fleecing of the Carolina Panthers in a 2023 trade that landed a cache of top picks. The team on the field is coming together, he promised. And the field itself should come together too, he added.

Ninety-three of the 100 top television programs last year were NFL broadcasts that gave viewers a look at cities across the country, Warren said.

“Every time that we play on television here in Chicago, and especially when we pay on national television, the entire world is looking at Chicago,” he said. “We have a unique time here with the Chicago Bears to not only build a great football team, to build a great organization, but to build a world-class stadium that will only empower everyone in this room.”

After lauding the business promise of a new stadium, Warren questioned the city’s outlook. He cited Chicago’s slide in a ranking of the world’s best cities and noted downtown has high commercial vacancy and few cranes in the sky.

“It’s only so long that we can lean on the fact that we are Chicago,” Warren said. “We got to start coming together and doing big jobs, putting people to work, closing the economic gap between people of color and non-people of color.”

Despite a lack of success in Springfield so far, the general outlines of Warren’s proposal for the glitzy stadium did not change as he presented Tuesday. He once again touted the over $2 billion in private money that would go into the project, claiming a local parallel for private investment “does not exist.”

The team’s investment would amount to 72% of the stadium’s cost, he said. The Bears have previously called for the rest of the $3.2 billion cost of the stadium alone to be paid for with $900 million from the state.

But the true public cost of the project would likely be far more expensive. The Bears have requested the city and state refinance $430 million existing debt for previous stadium projects, set up a $160 million so-called liquidity fund to help Chicago cover any unexpected tax revenue shortfalls and pony up as much as $1.5 billion more in infrastructure money.

Counting interest and other long-term costs, the proposed new borrowing would tally up to at least $4.8 billion over four decades.

The team’s plan would include 65,000 seats for football, a translucent roof and the potential for year-round events.

Johnson called it a future “crown jewel of the city of Chicago” when it was unveiled. At the time, Pritzker said parts of the proposal were “probably nonstarters” — a stance that seems to have taken hold in Springfield.

“The deal that was presented didn’t take into account that taxpayers really aren’t going to do well under that proposal,” Pritzker has said.

But both the mayor and the governor steered clear of the topic Tuesday. Instead, they highlighted their different visions and accomplishments to the business community.

Pritzker focused his remarks on his efforts to balance budgets while attracting new businesses with “pro-growth policies” and “red carpet” rollouts.

“For a couple of decades, our state was plagued by fiscal challenges. And it weighed on our businesses and residents,” he said. “My hope is that decades down the line, our children look back on decades of prosperity and recognize commonsense decisions that we all made to invest in ourselves and our future. And the way we make that possible is, of course, by working together.”

Johnson zeroed in on the importance of equity in Chicago’s economy. He called attention to his effort to spur housing development with a new $1.25 billion bond plan and red-tape-cutting proposals he said will help the city “get out of its own way.”

“We can spur development all throughout our city and not just within wealthy TIF (tax increment financing) districts,” Johnson said.

As he asked business leaders to join the city’s mentoring efforts for teens and young adults, he underscored the tale of two Chicagos. In South and West Side neighborhoods, unemployment is far higher than in other thriving areas, he said. Supporting the Chicagoans with the most needs will help the whole city, he argued.

“We must confront the difficult truth and we must do it head on,” Johnson said. “When we look closer at the numbers, we can see the real story of this city. There’s a lot of work to be done.”

Chamber President and CEO Jack Lavin closed the meeting taking shots at positions favored by Johnson and other local progressives. He knocked the mayor’s paid leave ordinance as a policy that stunts growth and halts job creation and called the county’s property tax system “a mess.”

“The best way to address these issues is a pro-growth jobs strategy,” Lavin said. “We will continue to reject this narrative that businesses do not pay their fair share because business has always led our economic growth and built the global city that we are today.”

jsheridan@chicagotribune.com