Updated: March 5, 2014 7:08PM
Mayor Rahm Emanuel has no business even exploring the idea of expanding Soldier Field at a time when Chicago is drowning in debt and its bond rating is continuing to drop, critics argued Wednesday.
The Civic Federation and Emanuel’s City Council critics started lining up for their own version of a goal line stand, one day after the Chicago Sun-Times disclosed the mayor was exploring the possibility of expanding Soldier Field by 5,000 seats to bolster his long-shot bid to host the Super Bowl and increase capacity for other revenue-generating events.
The timing was not ideal.
The Sun-Times lifted the veil on the behind-the-scenes stadium planning on the very day that Moody’s Investors dropped Chicago’s bond rating another notch citing "massive and growing unfunded pension liabilities" that "threaten the city's fiscal solvency" without "major revenue" and budget cuts " in the near term" and for years to come.
That gave the mayor’s critics an opening to pounce.
Some likened it to Emanuel’s plan to build a new basketball arena for DePaul University that would double as an “event center” for McCormick Place.
“We are at a serious bind here in this city. Our credit rating is down again. This is not the appropriate use of taxpayers funded money to help private companies,” said Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd)
Ald. John Arena (45th) noted that Chicago taxpayers already spent more than $400 million to rebuild Soldier Field for the Bears more than ten years ago.
“The Bears are a profitable football team. They would be the ones to benefit from this. If they want to pay for it on their own dime, God bless `em. It’s about time they paid us back for all that they’ve received using a Park District facility for decades,” Arena said.
After a relentless winter that exhausted Chicago’s snow removal budget and left the streets riddled with potholes, Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) said, “We need to hunker down and focus on things we absolutely need — not things that would be nice” if times were better.
Knee-jerk Emanuel critics were not the only ones questioning the mayor’s priorities. So did downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), vice chairman of the City Council’s Budget Committee, and Civic Federation President Laurence Msall.
“If there’s another way to accomplish the goal, I’m all ears. But, I don’t think this is the right time for the city of Chicago to consider big public subsidies for stadiums or take on more debt,” Reilly said.
Msall noted that the Moody’s downgrade — from A3 to Baa1 with a negative outlook — leaves Chicago with the “worst-rated credit of any major municipality in the United States” except bankrupt Detroit.
“Chicago needs to prioritize its financial actions and the top priority has to be addressing the pension crisis. Articulating to the Legislature or other units of government any other priorities conflicts with the immediate crisis in the city’s finances expressed by Moody’s downgrade,” Msall said.
“It’s hard to see how the expansion of Soldier Field will effectively address the city’s immediate financial crisis. It may have benefits to the Chicago Bears and the tourism industry. But, the construction and benefits from that are much farther off than the immediate costs of continued inaction on the city’s pension and financial challenges.”
Emanuel said it’s way too soon to determine how a Soldier Field expansion would be financed or how much debt it would require the city to issue.
He and Park District Superintendent Michael Kelly haven’t even decided if it makes financial sense to do it yet and, if so, how many seats should be added.
“Before you get to how you pay for something, I’m asking a more fundamental question: `Does it make sense because of things we did not envision when we first built Soldier Field: soccer games, outdoor hockey games, NCAA hockey games. We never envisioned that and it’s a clear revenue generator for the city and for the Park District,” Emanuel said.
“He may say it makes no sense and zero is the number. He may say or the analysis will, `It should be 7,000 [seats]. ’… It’s an open question.”
As for the Moody’s downgrade, Emanuel called it a “warning” and a “byproduct of decades -- and I mean decades -- of deferral and denial.” Chicago has “run out of room on that runway,” he said.
“We have to, with all the difficulties associated with it, solve our unfunded pension liability. I want everybody to know that, if we don’t, we’re going to get to a place as a world-class city I don’t want to go. We’re going to have to choose between a pension payment, filling a pothole or paving a road. And I do not think a world class city makes choices between pension payments, potholes or paving a road. We do all three,” he said.