Jim O'Donnell: Bears and Churchill Inc. make Louisiana Purchase look like child's play

AT THE END OF THE DAY, all Thomas Jefferson had to show for his guile was The Louisiana Purchase.

The thunderclap over Arlington Park Wednesday produced a different shock wave that could impact sports, economics and real estate in the region for decades to come.

That's what happens when a choice piece of land, a gaming corporation's ceaseless quest for increased shareholder value and a needy, major-market National Football League team come together at the intersection of Future and Profit.

The announcements that the Chicago Bears had reached agreement with Churchill Downs Inc. to move forward toward the purchase of the 326 acres of racetrack property for $197.2 million caught few completely off guard.

But the unprecedented indication that the Bears could summon the vision, resources and boldness to make such a deal left almost all who have been saddled for years with the team's unending scroll of underachievements astounded.

FOR A MULTIBILLION DOLLAR sports team desperately in need of fan-base perception of fresh, higher-level direction, the deal looms as a masterstroke.

If all comes to fulfillment, the value of the Bears will likely increase from the current estimate of $3.5 billion to more than $5.5 billion.

NFL play at George S. Halas Stadium - 80,000-plus seats, retractable dome and all - will probably begin no sooner than 2027.

Complete mixed-use development of the remaining land should take longer. One expert said all construction at "Bears Village at Arlington Park" may not be concluded until 2030.

CDI management acknowledged in a brief news release that the deal itself is targeted to close "in late 2022 or early 2023."

THERE ARE MULTIPLE REASONS for such an extended span from deal to done, according to David Trandel, the CEO of North Shore-based Stonestreet Partners LLC.

"They won't close until they have a full-blown master development plan, including stadium design and ancillaries, approved by the Village of Arlington Heights," Trandel said.

"That $200 million price tag means the Bears are paying full price," he added. "The only way to justify (paying and proceeding) is to have all of the zoning and entitlements in place. The village will give them whatever they want.

"Best case, that will take a year to get a master plan approved. To stay on the best possible timeline for the Bears, that means they are going to have to start submitting plans to the village very shortly."

TRANDEL AND OTHER commercial real estate experts also theorize the Bears will announce a proven partner to handle the integration of the mixed-use portion of the land with the new Halas Stadium.

"From an overview, I would be shocked if Glenstar isn't brought in to oversee the full redevelopment," Trandel said. "I also believe that Neil Bluhm, Pat Ryan and their heirs may have taken the lead in striking a deal to buy a majority interest in the team at some point before the end of the decade."

Glenstar is the Chicago-based real estate agency that confirmed its bid on the Arlington property July 2. CEO Michael Klein co-founded the company in 2004 and was doing serious business with $400 million of Bluhm's investment money one year later.

He did not return messages requesting comment Wednesday.

Bluhm is the octogenarian billionaire who was CDI's "threshold partner" in bringing the Kentucky corporation in as majority owner of the fabulously successful Rivers Casino in Des Plaines three years ago. He retains a 34% interest in the suburban temple of chance.

Ryan is the 83-year-old billionaire who purchased 17.7% of the Bears in 1987 to help the McCaskey family beat back a bid from real estate partners Bluhm and Judd Malkin to purchase a block of almost 20% from the estate of George "Mugs" Halas Jr.

Ryan retains right-of-first-refusal to any shares sold by members of the McCaskey family. Two of his sons - Pat Ryan Jr. and Rob Ryan - are also accomplished entrepreneurs waiting in the wings to further their father's initiatives.

ONE AUTHORITY WHO TEMPERED EXPECTATIONS over Wednesday's blockbuster was Charlie Johnson, the president of Johnson Consulting Inc. of Chicago.

Johnson and his firm are currently involved with stadium and major sports reboot projects involving the Jacksonville Jaguars of the NFL, the city of Cleveland and the San Jose Earthquakes of Major League Soccer, among others.

Said Johnson: "No. 1, I am much more of a believer in urban environments for sports teams as catalysts for redevelopment in major American cities. In any case, the goal is to provide the best possible environment for new levels of success by both the team and the host city.

"If the Bears were attempting to follow the template of anyone in their region, it would be what Tom Ricketts and the Cubs did. But Wrigleyville is a far different environment than the park district and museum campus that surrounds Soldier Field. The Ricketts family had significant opportunity to expand out from their sports hub. The Bears have little such option at Soldier Field, plus, they don't own it.

"Those are realities that Mayor (Lori) Lightfoot must acknowledge.

"There is much that is desirable about the Arlington Park site for the Bears. But another factor they must consider is "fan anguish." What, if any, losses will they incur by losing fans farther away from Arlington Heights who will feel left behind by a move to a Northwest suburb?"

JOHNSON ALSO CITED THE MOVE of the MLB Braves from the city of Atlanta to Truist Park in suburban Cobb County (Ga.) four years ago as notably analogous to the Bears-to-Arlington.

"If anything, Cobb County is a more energized region right now than Arlington Heights. And the Braves received significant funding from the county to leave Turner Field.

"But Arlington Park is a proven sports destination that will leave a significant chunk of developable mixed-used real estate to further profitability. I am not aware of any significant real estate portfolio developed by the McCaskey family or their associates, so I would think certainly, they must take on at least one partner able to maximize return on that land.

"As far as Arlington Heights, this is a phenomenal opportunity. The city's government and residents may have to make some accommodation to make all workable but that's a challenge many, many suburbs in America would dream about having."

AS FOR MAYOR LIGHTFOOT, while she spent much of Wednesday telling all who would listen that Bears management won't meet with her to discuss anything, she appears to be in denial over two critical points:

• That $84 million "buyout" of the Bears' lease at Soldier Field - which runs through the 2033 NFL season - will be below $75 million by the end of the current season and will be under $35 million if the new Halas Stadium isn't ready until 2027; and,

• George McCaskey, Ted Phillips and all who matter in and around Halas Hall appear to be in total acceptance of the fact a stadium in the city of Chicago is in their rearview mirror as plans for the construction at Arlington Park continue to gain forward progress.

A WILY BENEFICIARY of all announced Wednesday is CDI CEO Bill Carstanjen and associates.

They get out of Arlington Park as "clean" as possible. They remain one of three finalists for the new Waukegan casino license - set to move forward with the Illinois Gaming Board Oct. 13.

They remain positioned to attempt to "move" the license to race thoroughbreds at Arlington somewhere else in the state.

They even scheduled Wednesday's announcement so that it will be an inclusion in Carstanjen's quarterly investors earnings teleconference in October.

Plus - given the Bluhm family's remarkable back-channeling with Mayor Lightfoot - the CDI-Rush Street Gaming alliance is a prime contender to land majority interest in the Chicago casino license when its final taxing structure is made more operator-friendly.

(Lightfoot and Leslie Bluhm - one of Neil Bluhm's two daughters - met as first-year law students at the University of Chicago in 1985; the Bluhms were significant donors to Lightfoot's successful mayoral campaign in 2019.)

AND, IN AN OPTIC PASS-ALONG worthy of Niccolo Machiavelli, Carstanjen and crew may leave the onerous task of imploding the majestic main building at Arlington to its new owners in 2023 - the Chicago Bears.

All Thomas Jefferson had to do was convince the French that those 828,000 square miles west of the Mississippi weren't worth the trans-Atlantic effort.

That was child's play by comparison to what went down involving Arlington Park Wednesday.

• Jim O'Donnell's Sports & Media column appears Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at

The Bears announced the signing Wednesday the signing of an agreement to purchase Arlington Park racetrack the latest step toward a move from their longtime home, Soldier Field in Chicago. Associated Press
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