The exchange came Wednesday night at Bridgeview’s first Village Board meeting since the Tribune published a report detailing the small southwest suburb’s financial woes tied to its biggest bet, the 20,000-seat Toyota Park.
The taxpayer-owned home of the Chicago Fire has come up millions of dollars short of making its debt payments since opening in 2006. Meanwhile, the town has nearly tripled property taxes in less than a decade, even as the town offset some of the financial sting by taking out more loans to help make payments.
In all, the blue-collar suburb is now more than $200 million in debt.
In comparing towns’ debt to property values, the Tribune found Bridgeview had the highest debt rate in the Chicago area. Much of the debt is tied to a stadium deal in which the newspaper found insiders landed contracts and town officials enriched their political funds with stadium vendor donations.
The stadium might have helped put Bridgeview on the map (leading to higher status/prestige) as it is the only suburban facility in the Chicago area that is home to a major sports team (despite arguments in the past from the Bears and White Sox that they might move to the suburbs). But this level of debt seems insurmountable for a village of 16,500 people who have a median household income of $42,073, below the national average.
This should be a reminder for many communities, small suburbs or big cities: sports stadiums are not the deals they may be made out to be. Yes, it could bring or keep a major sports team. But, the public debt may take decades to repay, can lead to higher tax burdens for residents who are likely not all attending the games, doesn’t necessarily mean that a host of entertainment businesses will open up nearby to serve stadium patrons, and the primary people who benefit are the sports teams (who get new stadiums for which they don’t have to pay the whole bill) and a small number of local leaders and businesses. It may be nice to mentioned on TV every once in a while (if you can find the more minor channels the Fire tend to be relegated to) and be the politician who helped bring the major team to town but it often isn’t a great deal for the whole community.