Mayor says lawmakers are offering to help preserve Arlington Park, part of Northwest suburbs' identity

Arlington Heights Mayor Thomas Hayes says state lawmakers already are contacting him with offers to help keep Arlington Park open after its parent company this week cast doubt on the racetrack's future.

"It would be a travesty if we were to let the track close," Hayes said Thursday, a day after Churchill Downs Inc. unexpectedly announced it would not seek a casino license after years of insisting it was essential to Arlington Park's survival.

Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen blamed the state law requiring the track to dedicate a portion of casino game earnings to racing purses, something not required of other gambling venues.

The company committed to continuing horse racing only for the next two years.

Hayes declined to reveal specifics, but he said legislators have brought up several ideas to keep Arlington Park in business. He said "some thinking outside the box" would be necessary.

"A lot of people are interested in doing all they can to keep it open," Hayes said.

That's in large part because of what Arlington Park means to the village's identity and the Northwest suburbs as an iconic entertainment draw.

Part of it is the economic benefits it provides in jobs and tax revenues.

Cook County records show the 336-acre racetrack site generated $3.5 million in property tax revenue in 2019 that'll be split by entities including the village, Palatine Township Elementary District 15 and Northwest Suburban High School District 214.

District 15 Chief School Business Official Michael Adamczyk said that because of how the state's property tax limitation law works, the district would not lose revenue if the track closes. But other taxpayers would make up the difference.

"This is because other property owners within the district boundaries would absorb the amount Arlington (Park) provided, resulting in an increase in limiting or taxing rate," Adamczyk said.

There also are food-and-beverage and home-rule sales taxes generated for the village, along with revenue from a 10-cent tax charged on each paid admission.

Arlington Heights' current budget projects $30,000 from the admissions tax. To achieve that projection, that means 300,000 spectators would attend 71 days of live racing - a 4,225 average daily attendance.

But in a statement criticizing Churchill Downs' decision to not pursue the casino license, the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association said Arlington Park is not contributing all it can in property taxes. The association said the track received a $2.47 million property tax break this year through a provision in the state's Horse Racing Act.

Beyond the financial boost, Arlington Park, which opened Oct. 13, 1927, has been part of Arlington Heights' identity for nearly a century.

Police squad cars at one time had a horse head image on the side. Ponies on Parade, a public art exhibit, sprinkled brightly colored fiberglass horses around town to help celebrate Arlington Park's reopening after a two-year shutdown.

The village logo includes the image of a horse. And there is an annual downtown street party called the Mane Event, held a week before the Arlington Million.

While she doesn't want the track to close, Arlington Heights Trustee Robin LaBedz said the village would still have much going for it, such as its vibrant downtown.

"I wouldn't be worried about the village (image) at all," said LaBedz, a 40-year Arlington Heights resident. "Yes, they have been intertwined, but the village isn't defined by the racetrack."

Trustee Mary Beth Canty said a recognizable piece of Arlington Heights would be lost if the track were shuttered, but the village would find a way to move on.

"We're a resilient village," Canty said, "and we're strong and we have a lot going on."

Churchill Downs, which has a 61% stake in Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, will apply for a sports betting license at Arlington Park. Churchill and Rivers operator Rush Street Gaming also recently announced plans to seek a state license to operate a casino in Waukegan.

In a note to investors, J.P. Morgan analysts wrote Wednesday that Churchill Downs' move to not seek a casino license at Arlington Park was not surprising. Churchill wants to avoid cannibalizing Rivers in Des Plaines while tapping into Lake County and southeastern Wisconsin with a Waukegan location, analysts say.

Should Churchill Downs get to operate in Waukegan, it would have a maximum 2,000 gambling positions compared to 1,200 allowed at Arlington Park, J.P. Morgan said.

"We expect further clarity on (Arlington Park's) racing license once (Churchill Downs) is able to evaluate the impact of the Illinois gaming expansion bill," reads the J.P. Morgan research note.

Hawthorne Racecourse in Stickney and Fairmount Park in downstate Collinsville have applied for casino licenses, according to the Illinois Gaming Board.

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Arlington Park has been a part of Arlington Heights' image over the years. As an example, the Mane Event is the village's annual street party a week before the Arlington Million. Daily Herald file photo, 2013
  The sign welcoming people to Arlington Heights shows the "A" designed to resemble a horse head. Mark Black/
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