The Chicago Bears’ suddenly serious interest in moving to Arlington Heights couldn’t have come at a worse time for Chicago.
As team officials move toward buying land for a suburban stadium, city leaders are trying to reignite a downtown economy battered by COVID and control a crime wave that’s spreading fear all over town.
While the possible loss of an NFL franchise pales beside those and other challenges facing Chicago, it’s potentially another dent in a banged-up municipal fender.
Losing the Bears would fuel an emerging narrative of urban decline that’s gained momentum over the last year or so. It’s not so much the direct financial impact that matters as the effect on Chicago’s reputation, a hard-to-quantify but undeniably important asset that underpins the entire metropolitan region.
The city’s image has taken a beating lately. Rampant carjackings and expressway shootings generate headlines, causing out-of-towners to wonder if Chicago is safe to visit, and locals to think twice about venturing out at night. Reputational damage control gets harder every day, with newspapers as far away as England reporting on Chicago shoplifting gangs.
At the same time, a historic pandemic has led some city dwellers to re-evaluate another risk of living in dense neighborhoods. After a couple of decades that saw suburbanites move downtown, the past year has witnessed an outflow of Chicagoans who are trading condos and townhouses for the suburban tract houses they once shunned.
A departure by Chicago’s NFL franchise would stand as a high-profile example of the trend, another signal that downtown is no longer the place to be.
That would be bad news, not only for Chicago but for the whole metropolitan area. A vibrant urban core helps bind the region together. Anything that weakens it loosens bonds throughout a sprawling, 9,600-square-mile metropolis that already suffers too much geographic factionalism. Divides between North, South and West would only deepen when there’s less sense of connection to a central hub.
True, having a pro football team playing at Soldier Field hasn’t closed those fault lines. But it gives tens of thousands of people from across the region a reason to come downtown and mingle with folks from other parts of metropolitan Chicago. That experience helps foster a feeling of common identity rooted in the city.
I don’t doubt the Bears would draw enough fans to fill a stadium in Arlington Heights. But in abandoning a downtown location roughly equidistant from all their fans, they would appear to favor some over others. Consider the differing impact of the move on fans from various locales. For fans from Lake Forest, travel time to Bears games would drop to 40 minutes from more than an hour. Fans from South Holland, by contrast, would see their travel time double to an hour.
The move also would take some shine off one of our region’s most important economic attractions. A thriving downtown sets Chicago apart from all but a handful of American cities. The city’s lakefront, Michigan Avenue, museums, restaurants and other cultural and entertainment assets draw visitors from around the world and attract businesses seeking new office locations. That creates jobs, drives up demand for a wide range of services and helps support housing prices across the area, not just in the city.
Some point out, correctly, that pro sports teams in other cities have moved to suburban locations without appearing to harm local economies. But those cities generally lack downtown areas on par with Chicago’s. Have you ever heard anyone gush over downtown Dallas or Los Angeles? Many other cities, including Baltimore, Cleveland and Minneapolis, have gone the other way, building new stadiums downtown that helped spark urban revivals.
Of course, downtown Chicago will retain its attractions no matter where the Bears play. But if they move to Arlington Heights, the city would lose some valuable free advertising. No longer will television viewers across the country see the magnificent Chicago skyline and lakefront when they tune in to Bears games.
I don’t mean to overstate the impact of a Bears move out of downtown. It wouldn’t be an economic body blow on its own. It would be the latest in a series of painful bruises for the city.