Jim O'Donnell: Does mayoral hopeful Willie Wilson have enough gas left to keep Bears in Chicago?

  • Chicago businessman and mayoral candidate Willie Wilson wants to keep the Bears in the city, and says he intends to work to make that happen.

    Chicago businessman and mayoral candidate Willie Wilson wants to keep the Bears in the city, and says he intends to work to make that happen. Associated Press

Updated 4/29/2022 5:26 PM

A COMPELLING "Y" FACTOR has emerged in an attempt to stymie the move of the Chicago Bears to Arlington Park.

Willie Wilson -- the well-resourced Chicago mayoral candidate -- told the Daily Herald he is seeking a meeting with team chieftains George McCaskey and Ted Phillips to plot a course that would leave the home stadium of the Bears within city limits.


"You begin with communication, and that's what we've begun," said Wilson, the 73-year-old businessman best known recently for a series of multimillion-dollar free vehicle gas giveaways in the Chicago area.

"You would think the current mayor of Chicago would have sought that path when word first got out last year that the Bears were thinking of leaving. She failed to do that. She treated them with scorn. That reinforces the fact she doesn't understand business and she doesn't understand how to run the city of Chicago."

WILSON SAID THAT IF HE is elected mayor next year, he would first propose an expansion of seating capacity at Soldier Field along with a domed roof.

"The stadium could be expanded to the south, toward 31st Street and the old Michael Reese (Hospital) property," Wilson said. "How that was not part of that expensive renovation plan 20 years ago still baffles me.

"I know I don't go to Bears games after Thanksgiving or so because I'm not going to enjoy any kind of football game sitting out in all that wind and cold. I think the fact that so many fans do is just more reason why Chicago football fans are the greatest in the world."

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IF THE BEARS DECLINE that assistance, Wilson said his administration would then work with the team to find a "fan-friendly site" for a new stadium in the city.

Finally, if the Bears were to move to Arlington or any other location outside the city, Wilson said he would form an alliance of regional officials and influencers from elected federal office holders on down to implore the National Football League to award the city of Chicago a new team.

"As it is, we have a metropolitan area approaching 9 million people vying for 60,000 seats or so for eight or nine games a year," Wilson said. "If Arlington gets the Bears, that leaves a whole lot of people on the West Side and the Southwest Side and the South Side and down into Northwest Indiana ready, willing and able to support a second Chicago team.

"Why should New York and Los Angeles have two NFL teams and the city of Chicago possibly be left with none? We support the White Sox and Cubs. We could certainly support a second NFL team."


THE CHICAGO MAYORAL PRIMARY is next Feb. 28. Wilson and Southwest Side Alderman Ray Lopez are the only announced major Democratic candidates, although incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot indicated to media late this week that she will seek a second term.

One of the glaring limitations on Wilson's political resume is the fact that he has never held elective office.

In the 2015 Chicago Democratic mayoral primary, he came out of nowhere to finish third behind incumbent Rahm Emanuel and Jesus "Chuy" Garcia in a field of five.

In 2019, Wilson maintained his same 10% share -- primarily Black conservative voters -- but finished fourth, behind Lightfoot, Toni Preckwinkle and William Daley of the dynastic Bridgeport family.

PRIOR TO THE LIGHTFOOT-PRECKWINKLE runoff, Wilson endorsed Lightfoot. Political experts deemed his decision "significant" in Lightfoot's subsequent runaway win over Preckwinkle. Wilson himself has since called it "one helluva mistake."

Wilson grew up poor in Louisiana and left school at age 12 to work in a sharecropper's field. He arrived in Chicago in 1965, "at the Greyhound station with 50 cents in my pocket."

A short while later, he was mopping floors at a McDonald's not far from Chicago Stadium. Less than 18 years after that, after an audacious meeting with Ray Kroc, he owned five McDonald's franchises.

Wilson sold those and now owns a medical supply firm.

He has announced he is committing at least $5 million of his own money to his 2023 mayoral campaign.

AWAY FROM WILSON, the Bears' Arlington Park initiative continues to proceed through its due-diligence stages.

On Thursday, Bill Carstanjen -- CEO of Churchill Downs Inc. -- told investors and other interested parties: "We are still on track to sell the 326-acre Arlington Park property to the Chicago Bears for $197 million in the first half of 2023 pending receipt of remaining approvals."

In January, McCaskey announced that Phillips would detach from many day-to-day responsibilities to focus on point-manning the Bears/AP matter to a final decision on whether to purchase or punt.

At that time, McCaskey also confirmed informed speculation that Churchill and selling agent CBRE approached the team about the purchase in the spring of 2021.

"Our exploration of the Arlington Heights property was determined in large part by the seller," the Bears chairman said.

THAT ACKNOWLEDGED SEQUENCING has led to continuing speculation that anticipated movement in team ownership in the next few years is making financing of any new stadium compound by current Bears owners markedly complex.

In March, McCaskey and Co. announced the retention of three vendors to assist in the due-diligence channeling. One -- Jones Lang LaSalle -- is a Chicago-based firm that specializes in high-ticket commercial real estate and property investment.

Some authorities in the field say that likely means the Bears are deep into a pursuit of making the Arlington Park land pay for itself before the first shovel toward a new stadium is turned.

IN THAT PROJECTION, the team would keep acreage necessary for a new stadium, parking and minimal external amenities and work out some profit participation arrangement regarding the remaining land.

If the Bears complete their purchase of the Arlington land and move Churchill Inc. out of the picture, that would also leave team managers in a nicely leveraged spot to flip the land for a profit and stay in Chicago.

The other two vendors unveiled were: MANICA Architecture of Kansas City, Kansas, and CAA Icon, a property strategy firm that assisted the Ricketts family in much of the reimagineering of Wrigley Field and neighborhood adjacencies.

AS FOR WILSON, he says he has difficulty imagining a city of Chicago without the Bears.

"Their (departure) would be nothing but sad," the candidate said. "I can't imagine any sports fan in the city of Chicago who wants to see it.

"None of this is against anything having to do with the people of Arlington (Heights).

"But Chicago is a city known around the world for so many great things. And one of its greatest has been the Chicago Bears football team. It is a brand and tourism engine.

"The Bears may one day play in Arlington Heights if the city of Chicago isn't restored by business-smart leadership.

"But they won't be the Chicago Bears anymore."

• Jim O'Donnell's Sports and Media column appears three times weekly, including Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at jimodonnelldh@yahoo.com.

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