Young players from Jesse Owens Park suit up for KAOS Football at Soldier Field, the current home of their hometown NFL team. (Courtesy of Ty Young)

The Bears are closer to ditching Chicago for the suburbs, which would make their games even more inaccessible to South and West Side fans, residents said.

Bears officials will reveal conceptual plans for a “transit-oriented, mixed-use entertainment district anchored by a stadium” at a community meeting Thursday in suburban Arlington Heights. The team signed a purchase agreement for the now-closed Arlington Park racetrack in September 2021, although that deal has not closed.

The proposed new stadium would be off the Arlington Park stop along the Union Pacific Northwest line.

While the Bears have repeatedly threatened to leave the city, South and West side youth coaches and fans said a move risks distancing the team, its community programs and games from people who already have a hard enough time seeing them play.

LaVonte Stewart, founder of nonprofit Lost Boyz Inc., said he’s only able to go to games with some of the kids he supports because the Bears let them run a concession stand inside Soldier Field to raise money. He’s unsure if that would continue in Arlington Heights.

“Being a lifelong Bears fan, we’ve seen them bluff for years, but the reality that the move might actually happen now is almost unfathomable,” Stewart said. “It’s going to impact fans in communities like mine — communities of color and kids inside nonprofits. It’s going to be more difficult to travel there and be part of it.”

Bears Care, the charitable wing of the team, has sponsored flag football and junior tackle leagues for city high schoolers and youths, as well as provided them free tickets to a Bears game during Play Football Month, according to its website. The team gave grants for training equipment to two Chicago high schools and plans to help open a healthy living center in Auburn Gresham this fall.

The Bears did not respond to questions about potential changes in community partnerships if the team were to move to Arlington Heights.

But Chicago’s team has only been “here and there as far as representation” with its young football players, said Ty Young, founder of Keeping Adolescents Off the Street Bulldogs football.

Discounted group tickets for young local fans have been limited, and coaches have had to mostly fund and run their own camps sponsored by the team, said Young, who fields teams for youths at Jesse Owens Park, 8800 S. Clyde Ave. Last season, the Bulldogs had to work with an outside organization that rents Soldier Field, which required them to sell 100 tickets for $30 each to be able to play there, Young said.

“The kids don’t really get to go to games, even for preseason, and the Bears don’t seem to know the teams operating in the area,” Young said. “I’ve been doing this for 13 years, and it feels like everything we do we have to do on our own.”

Ernest Radcliffe has run Southside Wolfpack since 1997, organizing football teams for youth on the South Side, and has twice brought groups of kids to preseason Bears games at discounted prices. Moving the team farther away would make that more of a challenge and limit kids access to pro players, Radcliffe said.

“For them to be close to a stadium and feel like they can participate and make it there is a wonderful opportunity,” Radcliffe said. “If they move to Arlington Heights, we could still get out there, but it won’t be the same. It’d be nice to see more of these football players in our communities, to build inspiration for our young people.”

A potential move to Arlington Heights represents the team’s continued shift to catering to corporate outings and richer neighborhoods north of Chicago, and it is “consistent with NFL teams making moves to maximize the bottom lines,” said Reuben A. Buford May, a Bears fan from Hyde Park and professor at University of Illinois who studies the sociology of sports.

“Watching spectator sports is becoming something affluent people do,” May said. “On the local level, the impact is significant because the neighborhoods close to Soldier Field are what anchor the mentality of the team that’s being sold: the boots of the city, working class, hard-hitting. But those fans will have even less access, and they’re the ones who’ll be left behind.”

Another skeptic is Mickey Pruitt, a former Bears player who directs football programs for Chicago Public Schools.

The Bears have been “gracious” to CPS, helping start a girls flag football varsity league and hosting clinics, Pruitt said. But he worries players may lose their connection to the city if the stadium is in Arlington Heights and the practice facility remains in suburban Lake Forest.

“There’s something about playing at Soldier Field where you see the skyline and it makes you feel like you’re not just playing for the Chicago Bears, but all Chicagoans,” Pruitt said. “The identity of the team will change, but ultimately that’s not our choice.”

Pruitt and others said they understand the business sense of the Bears moving to a state-of-the-art stadium in the spacious suburbs. The Bears will still be the Bears, even if they don’t play in the city they’re named after, May said.

“For right now, it’ll be a shock, and it feels foreign to us, but when it comes down to it, the money move will pay off and we’ll still root for the Bears,” May said. “They can get away with it because the game is just so popular.”