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Monday, March 4, 2024

White Sox likely would have to change state law to get funding

The Chicago White Sox met with a state funding agency to present plans for a new stadium, but officials say lawmakers would have to increase the borrowing limit if the team wants taxpayer financing.

The Illinois Sports Facilities Authority would be a major potential source of financing, because it funded construction of the current Sox home at Guaranteed Rate Field. But without a change in state law, the agency has only about $100 million in available funding, CEO Frank Bilecki said — not nearly enough for a development that could cost more than $1 billion.

The briefing last week between agency officials, the team and developer Related Midwest addressed their desire to build a ballpark and surrounding development on The 78, a vacant site on the Chicago River in the South Loop.

Bilecki said the crucial unknown of the project — how it would be paid for — was not discussed in detail, but he hopes to keep the team in Chicago.

“We are encouraged that the conversation about the White Sox future in Chicago has begun,” Bilecki said. “We look forward to further discussions.”

Related Midwest released drawings of what the stadium could look like, featuring a center field picnic lawn and a riverwalk with views of the downtown skyline, and ambitious projections for its economic impact.

The new field would generate a $9 billion investment, $4 billion in annual economic impact and $200 million in annual tax revenue, according to the developer’s economic impact projections, which were not publicly substantiated.

The plans call for 5 million annual visitors — about triple what the Sox drew in attendance last year — plus 1,300 new housing units at the current Sox home near Bridgeport, and 1,000 affordable units. The plans also showed a soccer field in the Sox current park. Related Midwest acknowledged it doesn’t own the property around the park — the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority does — and stated that the future of the site would be up to a lengthy community process.

Related Midwest declined through Tricia Van Horn, vice president of marketing and communications, to provide further information on a timetable, how the company came up with its economic projections or whether the proposal would require taxpayer funding.

Allen Sanderson, a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago who studies the economics of sports, said he’s skeptical any new sports venue, including a new downtown White Sox ballpark, can on its own generate billions in new investment.

“Usually when you hear the figure someone gives you on a project’s economic impact, it’s best to take the decimal point and move it one spot to the left, so you end up at about 10% of the original estimate,” he said. “That’s probably what’s going to happen.”

And if the White Sox want to fill a huge new ballpark, ownership will have to field a better team.

“I hate to say this, but at the moment, all five of our pro teams suck. They’re just unwatchable,” Sanderson said.

The sports facilities authority still owes $50 million on the current Sox stadium, which opened in 1991, and $589 million on the 2002 renovation of Soldier Field.

Those bonds are supposed to be repaid with a 2% city hotel tax, plus $5 million annually each from the city and state. But those funds weren’t enough to cover the debt in the past two years, forcing the city to pay $36 million extra to cover the difference.

Mayor Brandon Johnson previously said that the proposal looked the way a new park should, with unspecified community benefits. Affordable housing advocates say the project is a chance for the mayor to help fulfill his pledges.

“One of the things Brandon Johnson promised us was that, when we have massive developments like this, it will be part of a community neighborhood development plan,” said Don Washington, executive director of the Chicago Housing Initiative.

In a blueprint to transform Chicago, released last July, Johnson criticized past mayors for not creating enough affordable housing, and launching developments without fully involving residents of surrounding communities.

The 78 Development site, seen on Feb. 7, 2024, is 62 acres and sandwiched between the Metra Rock Island rail line and the river in Chicago. (Vincent Alban/Chicago Tribune)
The 78 Development site, seen on Feb. 7, 2024, is 62 acres and sandwiched between the Metra Rock Island rail line and the river in Chicago. (Vincent Alban/Chicago Tribune)

“This is a chance to reverse that,” said Washington, who wants to see new affordable and public housing units created both downtown and near Guaranteed Rate Field.

One tenant of the new site, the University of Illinois’ Discovery Partners Institute, is continuing with plans to break ground on its new $285 million headquarters on the site this year. The developers’ drawings included the eight-story tech training and research glass office building on the south end of the site.

CEO Bill Jackson, who is leaving the institute, welcomed the new park as a way to spur investment and development.

The 78 has a tax increment financing district, or TIF, that dedicates increased property taxes on the site to its development. One potential funding source would be to use increases in property taxes to pay debt on the project, which also would likely require a change in the law.

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