Teachers or Touchdowns | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Teachers or Touchdowns 

Could the millions that went into Soldier Field have been spent instead on education?

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The Bears and Mayor Daley got their way, and the new Soldier Field's been built. But the criticism won't die. The stadium's design and location may be moot, but its price tag still rankles. "Soldier Field's a symbol as much as it's a football stadium," says Jesse Sharkey, a history teacher at Senn high school. "As long as it's there on the lakefront it's a reminder of all the other things we might have done with the hundreds of millions of dollars--or whatever it was--we wasted on Soldier Field."

Sharkey's irritation is echoed by other municipal employees and neighborhood activists. That shouldn't surprise Daley or the Bears--neither made any attempt to win grassroots support before introducing their $560 million plan at a press conference in November 2000. Daley had held no public hearings and hadn't called for a referendum. He never took his case directly to the public. He simply presented the proposal as though the public's support were a given.

From Daley's perspective the stadium was needed, if only to keep the Bears in town. But it's never been clear that the Bears had anywhere else to go (no other city was actively recruiting them at the time), much less what difference it would make if they did.

The mayor did win a few people over in the weeks following the press conference. But most architecture critics said the plan was an abomination--the Tribune's Blair Kamin described it as a "monumental eyesore" that "brings the gargantuan modernism of McCormick Place smack into the middle of the handsome classical ensemble of the museum campus." Veterans' groups objected to a provision in the deal that enabled the Bears to sell the naming rights to the highest corporate bidder (an idea they've apparently dropped). The advocacy group Friends of the Parks filed suit to block the project on the grounds that it violated the lakefront protection ordinance (the suit was dismissed). The Tribune's editorial board hammered the proposal, mostly because the stadium would be an unsightly intrusion on the lakefront. And many disgruntled football fans said it made no sense to help out an organization that was so inept--the Bears have made the playoffs only once in the last nine seasons (this year they're off to a 1-4 start).

Nevertheless Daley's plan, backed by Governor George Ryan and former governor James Thompson, was quickly approved by both houses of the state legislature, the Chicago City Council, and the Chicago Plan Commission. In January 2002, just a few days after the Philadelphia Eagles trounced the Bears in a playoff game, workers started gutting the old field.

That year, in an attempt to win wider public support, the Bears brought in publicist Barnaby Dinges to handle public relations for the project full-time. Dinges, who used to work as a spokesman for state comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch, likened his job to running a political campaign. "Essentially my challenge was how to position this for the public to know what a good deal it was," he says. "If this is seen as just a project for the Bears it would do a disservice to the truth."

Dinges led the countercharge against the project's critics, dismissing civic activists such as the leaders of Friends of the Parks as "elitists" who "don't want anyone else enjoying their lakefront." He even took on the project's critics in the media, particularly those at the Tribune. "Journalists love to criticize--they love it when they own the ink and they can control all the communications," he says. "They love it when they're the only voice in town, but oh, if you turn it around. You have to ask yourself, are you going to be afraid of them or are you going to engage them? I lean toward engagement. This idea in PR that you have to cater to the media--forget it. You have to compete with the media. You have to have better information and get it out in a better way."

Dinges wrote countless press releases and led countless tours. "As a counterstrategy we went to the Sun-Times, the Daily Herald, talk radio, etc," he says. "It's almost like the Clinton strategy of going directly to the American people. We made the decision in January of this year to take people through Soldier Field even while it was still under construction. I can't tell you how many tours I gave. I took tours of people when it was ten degrees below zero. I had a wide range of civic groups, community groups, architects, engineering groups, and reporters--lots of reporters. I think I took almost every reporter in town through here. Most of them were pretty fair in what they wrote, though not all of them. When people came in and were really quiet I could tell we were going to get a rip job. It was like they were embarrassed to really say anything to me. They already knew what they were going to write--they were just looking for the little tweak, a dig, to add to the script."

Since the new stadium opened, the design has won a few raves from out-of-town critics--who, it should be noted, won't have to see it on a regular basis. But it's still way too early to tell if the stadium will become a beloved icon, as Daley has predicted.

Curiously, the one aspect of the project that engendered little early public criticism was that price tag. As Sharkey and other critics see it, the new Soldier Field is a glaring example of the city's skewed priorities. It has cost the city at least $360 million to build, though all of the money is supposed to be covered eventually by a special 2 percent tax added to the bills of lodgers at hotels and motels around town. The Bears are supposed to come up with the remaining $200 million, plus any construction overruns. City officials contend that a boom in tourism all but guarantees that the hotels and motels will generate enough revenue to pay off the money that was borrowed, though if they can't come up with the cash, the bonds will have to be repaid with money that comes out of general city revenues--in other words, repaid by the taxpayers.

But even if the hotels come through, people like Sharkey are disgusted that so much money was spent on a football field. "It's just outrageous that our city would spend all those hundreds of millions of dollars on a new stadium but can only come up with $1 million for reduction of class size," says Sharkey. "Where are our priorities?"

Dinges contends that the stadium isn't taking money from public schools or city services, because it's being paid for by the hotel-motel tax. "I'm a former schoolteacher--education's important to me," he says. "But we don't just need a city with great schools. We need a city with great schools and great attractions, so that people come to Chicago and spend money here. I don't disagree that we should spend money on education, but the hotel-motel tax has never been used for that. If that's what the voters want, they should go to Springfield to propose that." He adds that the new stadium came with public benefits. "The project also includes a play park on the lakefront, 17 acres of new park space, and a sledding hill. Don't forget, it will also raise money for the Park District. The Bears won't own the field--they only lease it. During the rest of the year the Park District can rent it out for soccer games or concerts."

The hotel-motel tax--which now yields around $20 million a year--was created by the state legislature in the late 80s for the specific purpose of building new stadiums, the first being a new home for the White Sox. According to the bill, ball fields "can be magnets for substantial interstate tourism resulting in increased retail sales, hotel and restaurant sales, and entertainment industry sales, all of which increase jobs and economic growth." The tax paid off all the loans to build the new Comiskey Park, then kept pouring in. Stadium critics point out that Daley wielded considerable clout to get the tax dedicated to rebuilding Soldier Field. He put his credibility on the line. He took hits from the press. They wonder why he was willing to do so much to renovate a football field--which relatively few Chicagoans will ever visit--when he could have been putting all that effort behind something that would have served a much larger public good. And they wonder why he couldn't have used his clout to get the tax dedicated to paying for something like schools.

"If they had wanted that tax to go to hiring new teachers or building new schools they could have passed a law for that instead of a new stadium," says Brian Minarcik, who teaches at Darwin Elementary in Logan Square. "And don't give me that stuff about the sledding hill. This project wasn't about building the public a new sledding hill. If they want to put a sledding hill or a play park on the lake, there are cheaper ways to do that."

Minarcik happens to be a passionate Bears fan and a longtime season ticket holder. "I love the Bears--my whole family loves the Bears," he says. "My dad has four season tickets, and I have two. I can tell you anything you want about Chicago Bears trivia--I can start telling you all the quarterbacks going back to Sid Luckman. In my family we eat, drink, and die Chicago Bears."

He doesn't even particularly mind the new stadium. "There's some things I like about it," he says. "The first thing that amazed me was the tributes to the soldiers. I can't wait to bring my class there to show them. But there are other things I don't like. If you're like me and you have one of the less expensive seats on the west side of the stadium, you can't walk over to the colonnades on the east side. My wife and I tried to do that, but a guard wouldn't let us through. The elite side of the stadium, where the skyboxes are, gets the best view."

Minarcik doesn't think one ounce of city effort should have gone toward helping the Bears build a football stadium, given the problems the schools have. "Forget the talk about new computers and high-tech stuff," he says. "I've taught in schools where they haven't bought new books in ten years. My wife is stuck with 39 kids in a classroom. How can you get anything done with 39 kids? But we have enough money to build the Bears a new stadium so they can make more money selling skyboxes? Give me a break."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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