Chicago Fire Performance Center is Win-Win for Club, Community

Mary and Robert Baggett are just two of the thousands of Chicagoans who called ABLA their home. An acronym for a collection of four public housing developments on the city’s Near West Side overseen by the Chicago Housing Authority, the siblings would frequent the nearby Boys and Girls Clubs and park district.

Then their lives began falling apart, literally. Buildings and amenities lacked attention and care. Resources and funding disappeared. Crime and violence rose. 

To address the many issues facing public housing throughout the city, the CHA launched its “Plan for Transformation” in October 1999—an ambitious initiative to transform 25,000 distressed public housing units, including the 3,596 units of ABLA, comprised of the Jane Addams Homes built in 1938, Robert Brooks Homes (1943), Loomis Courts (1951) and Grace Abbott Homes (1955).

In 2003 as most of the ABLA buildings were leveled, the CHA announced plans to remake the development with 2,441 new and 455 rehabbed units. As of June 2022, CHA’s chosen developer built 667 units as more than 30,000 residents await homes from the Chicago Housing Authority while the organization sold or leased the property for purposes other than housing, including a nonprofit tennis academy, charter school, police station and supermarket.

“We’ve been burned so many times with people promising things,” says Robert Baggett, a Brooks resident. “Then when whatever they built is up, we were never part of it.”

But after more than two decades of vacant land and false promises, ABLA is finally getting its much-needed refurbishment thanks to Chicago Fire FC. 

The Major League Soccer organization will lease approximately 30 acres of land where public housing once stood to not only develop a state-of-the-art 50,000-square-foot performance center, but also to invest in the local community by building homes, financing the renovation of neighboring CHA residences and creating safe spaces for residents to learn, play and interact.

“It was very important for us to integrate well with the local community to understand their needs and how they could benefit from this development so it’s not just an isolated development that isn’t connected to our neighbors,” Chicago Fire FC owner Joe Mansueto says. “We want to be a good neighbor.”

The $80-100 million fully privately financed project was approved by the Department of Housing and Urban Development on March 9. The club will officially break ground this spring with the hopes of moving in by summer 2024.

Plans call for two hybrid grass fields and a goalkeeper field, an underground heating system, a sand pit, three synthetic turf fields—including one with an inflatable dome for use six months of the year—a two-story office building, performance center, an auxiliary structure for maintenance and storage, and a parking lot for approximately 150 vehicles.

The land, which will be leased from CHA, will house the Fire’s first team, MLS Next Pro team, youth academy and soccer operations, which currently operate out of SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview, Illinois, approximately 15 miles southwest of the Chicago Loop.

It’s still to be determined if the new facilities will also house the club’s business operations including ticketing, marketing and other departments, currently working out of offices in the Loop.

“This was an opportunity to really put a stake somewhere in the city and say, ‘We’re back to stay and this isn’t just about developing world-class football players, it’s also about making a positive impact within the community,’” says Paul Cadwell, Chicago Fire senior vice-president of community programs, engagement and facilities.

Unfortunately the dual message placing as much importance on community as club was met with some opposition and reluctance. Members of the zoning committee voted 7-5 on September 20 to down the revised proposal for pending development. But after the panel was reconvened less than 24 hours to hold a second vote, the plan passed 10-5 with more aldermen present before earning a 37-11 vote of approval by the full council.

According to ProPublica, Mansueto donated $25,000 to outgoing Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot’s reelection campaign in mid-November which prompted calls for an independent investigation; Lightfoot lost her bid for a second term March 1.

Even many ABLA residents and advocates needed convincing, including the Baggetts.

“At first it was like, ‘Oh here we go. Somebody wants to build something on the land and residents won’t have access to it,’” says Mary Baggett, an ABLA resident who sits on the local advisory council. “But they spoke well and meant well. They spoke as if they wanted to be a family with us. … They made me feel comfortable saying, ‘It’s about the community.’ They showed it in so many ways that wasn’t shown by anyone else who has put property or built something on CHA land and the residents didn’t gain from it. 

“With the Chicago Fire, we’re gaining things the residents need.”

Centerpiece of the community

Born and raised in the Greater Manchester area in England, Paul Cadwell knows how important a soccer club is to its local community.

“I’m not just talking about the Manchester Uniteds and the Manchester Citys, I’m talking about the Stockport Countys, the Bolton Wanderers, the Blackburn Rovers of the world,” he says. “The club can be a centerpiece for so much activity and so much betterment for the youth in their communities.” 

A youth player with Aston Villa, Cadwell crossed the Atlantic in 1997 as Major League Soccer began laying its roots following the United States hosting the 1994 FIFA World Cup. Seeing an opportunity to build a new club from the ground up, Cadwell joined the Chicago Fire, which not only began play in 1998, but won the league title in its inaugural season.

With more than a dozen titles and offices under his belt in two-plus decades with the organization, Cadwell’s responsibilities today aren’t just limited to ensuring the Fire have world-class facilities, but also how the club engages with its community.

As part of the project, the Fire will provide $8 million to be used toward improving the ABLA community. A portion will create indoor and outdoor community spaces as determined by the residents, while the remaining balance will go directly toward renovating and upgrading the existing ABLA housing. 

The club will build out mentorship programs and free soccer programming for local youth to get access and visibility into sports business beyond coaching and playing including photography, videography, marketing, partnerships, sales and social media. The Chicago Fire is also committed to 10 paid internships a year via these programs. 

Construction of the project will employ at least 40% minority or women-owned firms, according to Mansueto, and an additional 10% of workers from the neighborhood.

“It’s not just about elevating today,” Cadwell says, “it’s about what can we do to make this growth for young people in the future.”

Reaffirming a commitment

Joe Mansueto purchased a 49% stake in the Chicago Fire in July 2018. A year later, the chairman and CEO of financial services firm Morningstar whose net worth is an estimated $5.1 billion according to Forbes, acquired full control of the club on September 13, 2019.

To celebrate the club’s new era, which also included a return to Soldier Field in 2020, Chicago Fire Soccer Club rebranded to Chicago Fire FC with a new “fire crown” logo that was met with mainly negative reaction. 

Acknowledging this, the club went back to the drawing board by enlisting the input and opinions from its supporters via a fan-focused project for a re-redesign to unveil its new crest in June 2021.

The club’s growing pains off the field mirrored what was happening on the field. The Fire haven’t finished better than eighth in the MLS Eastern Conference in the past five seasons, reaching double-digit wins just twice in 2019 and 2022. The team, which finished in 12th place at 10-15-9 last year under first-year head coach Ezra Hendrickson, scored just 39 goals, the second-lowest total in the league. 

Headlined by Swiss international Xherdan Shaqiri ($7.5 million), Mexican winger Jairo Torres ($6 million) and Argentine defensive midfielder Federico Navarro ($5 million), the Fire hope to turn the tide and return to the MLS Cup Playoffs for just the third time since 2010.

The club hopes the new performance center will prove to be a catalyst for growth and success.

“We have aspirations to be a world-class soccer club, so having a world-class performance center to develop our talent is a key part of that to develop our current players but also to develop our up-and-coming players on our reserve team and our academy,” Mansueto says. “It’s something that’s pretty essential to our vision for the club.”

Following the 2022 season, the club signed Chicago native and homegrown talent Brian Gutiérrez and homegrown goalie and Naperville, Illinois, native Chris Brady to new contracts through 2026 with a club option for 2027. The Fire also signed academy product and South Loop native Justin Reynolds to a homegrown contract through 2026, and acquired Chicagoland native Chris Mueller from Hibernian F.C. of the Scottish Premier League on a free transfer.

Reynolds, 18, is the 24th homegrown player in club history, and the 10th to sign with the Fire since January 2020.

Gabriel “Gaga” Slonina, an 18-year-old goalkeeper who came up through the club’s academy, was sold to Chelsea FC for $10 million in August, while 19-year-old forward Jhon Durán, who led Chicago with eight goals last season, joined Aston Villa FC in January for a club-record transfer fee.

The future impact of the performance center won’t just be limited to the club, which may be its biggest win.

“I think the Chicago Fire will make a big difference in our community,” Mary Baggett says. “It brings back how we used to be when we could go into the Boys and Girls Clubs and enjoy ourselves. Them rebuilding up our community to give the youth the ability to come in and do arts and crafts, workouts in the gym, learn music and take up dancing is going to be a big experience for us and the community overall to enjoy the things we used to have and what we used to do back in our days when things were beautiful. 

“It’s still beautiful, but we just need help to do the things we like to do and the Chicago Fire is a great big deal to us in helping us get that off the ground and becoming a community again.”

NOTE: First appeared on Forbes SportsMoney


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