Budget cannot soldier through renovation

Chicago’s finances are in dire straits, but even in the face of the looming budget shortfall, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is dreaming up expensive renovations for Soldier Field. Clearly, the reality of Chicago’s fiscal difficulties has not hit him hard enough.

Emanuel said in a press briefing following the March 5 City Council meeting that he wants to draft a 5,000-seat expansion of Soldier Field in an attempt to host the Super Bowl in Chicago by 2019. Because the project is still just an idea, the mayor’s press office could not project a potential cost as of press time. As much of a windfall as that would be to Chicago Bears fans, the expense is unreasonable considering Chicago’s finances.

Hosting the Super Bowl would bring legions of tourists—and their wallets—to the city, but increased tourism and Super Bowl bragging rights do not make the project worth the total cost. Expanding Soldier Field—which currently seats only 61,500 compared to the 82,566-person capacity of MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, the site of the 2014 Super Bowl—would drain the city’s budget of millions that would be better spent elsewhere.

On March 4, Moody’s Investors Service downgraded Chicago’s credit rating to Baa1, one of the lowest in the country. The downgrade slaps the city with higher interest rates on its loans, so borrowing millions of dollars would be a publicity nightmare and dig the city deeper into its fiscal grave.

Making Soldier Field a Super Bowl-friendly venue would not be as easy as Emanuel would like Chicagoans to believe. When Daley renovated the stadium in 2003, the city had to issue bonds to cover the $365 million cost, according to Soldier Field’s website. The city also has also accrued a more than $339 million deficit as of October 2013. Taking on more public debt with dubious hopes of winning a Super Bowl bid would be unwise.

Chicago has a history of shelling out large chunks of cash on big projects that are not guaranteed to happen. In April 2009, the city planned to spend millions to demolish the Michael Reese Hospital complex in Bronzeville to make room for an Olympic Village when former Mayor Richard M. Daley made a bid to host the 2016 Olympics in Chicago. In the end, Rio de Janeiro won the Olympic bid. The Chicago government also has a bad habit of spending money on unnecessary improvements to project an image, such as the landscaping projects along Congress Parkway, the Magnificent Mile and State Street. These aesthetic makeovers cost millions of dollars and did for nothing more than marginally improve the city’s appearance.

Winning the Super Bowl bid is as probable as a Republican winning an election in Chicago—possible, but not likely. Most years, Chicago’s February weather is dicey at best and dangerous at worst, and an outdoor field is subject to hazardous weather. The additional traffic of tourists on both Chicago Transit Authority trains and buses and on the already clogged roads could lead to congested traffic conditions in the days surrounding the event, making life difficult for residents.

While many Chicagoans dream of having a Super Bowl close to home, the city should not stretch its resources dangerously thin to compete with other cities that have larger football stadiums. The city government has big, immediate concerns to address, and boosting its ego with a football game should not make the agenda.