Closing time: Chicago Bears finalize $197.2 million purchase of Arlington Park

There's a new neighbor at 2200 W. Euclid Ave. in Arlington Heights: the Chicago Bears Football Club.

The organization announced Wednesday it has closed on its $197.2 million purchase of the shuttered 326-acre Arlington Park property - a milestone in the charter NFL franchise's long-sought city-to-suburbs relocation.

But in an open letter to the community released at 3 p.m. Wednesday, the Bears caution that the land buy doesn't mean their vision for a $5 billion redevelopment of the shuttered racetrack site - highlighted by a domed stadium - is a done deal.

The final deal with Churchill Downs Inc. was inked some 17 months after the final thoroughbred horse race at the storied track and an initial sale and purchase agreement with the Bears was announced.

It comes as the Bears try to shore up support in Springfield for a new financing mechanism that would give the team a massive property tax break - which has already prompted resistance from local school districts.

"While this closing marks a major development in the ongoing evaluation, there has been no decision that the development of the recently acquired property will occur," the Bears wrote in the open letter. "But today's news is nonetheless an exciting update and positions our state and the Chicagoland region to be able to host world-class entertainment and sporting events on an unprecedented scale."

"We look forward to continuing this evaluation with the Village of Arlington Heights, surrounding governmental bodies and the General Assembly in the coming months, and conveying what we believe is necessary to transform the recently purchased, largely dormant Arlington Heights property into one of the most iconic mega-project entertainment and destination points in the world."

Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes called the Bears' closing a "major milestone" in a process that's spanned a year and a half but acknowledged there's much due diligence ahead for the team and the village.

Officials from the police, fire and public works departments planned to walk the sprawling site with Bears representatives on Thursday to review short-term concerns like security and property maintenance.

"We're very excited about the unique opportunity that this presents, and certainly appreciative that the Bears have chosen to make such a major investment in our community," Hayes said.

As to when the regal six-story grandstand might be torn down, Hayes said, "We just don't know about that yet."

A spokesman for Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot - who has tried to keep the Bears in the city by unveiling a $2.2 billion Soldier Field renovation plan - said news of the Bears' closing on Arlington Park presents an opportunity for the club to go back to the negotiating table with City Hall.

The team said it couldn't entertain other offers while it was under contract with Churchill Downs.

"Now that the land deal has closed, we have an even better opportunity to continue making the business case as to why the Bears should remain in Chicago and why adaptations to Soldier Field can meet and exceed all of the Bears' future needs," Lightfoot's spokesman wrote in a statement. "There is simply no doubt that the economic benefits for the team of staying in a re-imagined Soldier Field significantly outweigh those gained in a move to the suburbs."

Churchill Downs, the Louisville, Kentucky-based horse racing and gambling corporation that put Arlington Park up for sale nearly two years ago, said it would apply proceeds of the sale to the purchase of, and improvements to, property in connection with its Peninsula Pacific Gaming acquisition last year, which involves assets in Virginia, New York and Iowa. Under Internal Revenue Service rules, the company can defer federal capital gains taxes on the sale through a so-called 1031 exchange.

The Bears on Wednesday doubled down on their ask for public assistance for the project: funds for infrastructure like roads and water drainage, and "property tax certainty." That latter request is an allusion to legislation the club and business groups are floating in Springfield for a Payments in Lieu of Taxes program that would allow developers of "mega projects" - those worth at least $500 million - to make negotiated payments to local taxing bodies like schools while also getting an assessment freeze of up to 40 years. The Bears reiterated they would privately finance construction of the stadium itself.

"This support, along with the team's investment, will be crucial to ensuring the local and Illinois economies receive a dramatic, long-lasting influx of investment and new tax revenue of a magnitude never experienced before in the region," the Bears' letter reads.

But the school districts that cover the Arlington Park property are mounting opposition to the financing plan since it would take a cut of their future property tax revenues.

The Northwest Suburban High School District 214 and Palatine Township Elementary District 15 school boards last week authorized the hiring of a still-to-be-named lobbyist to oppose - or at least get amended - the so-called PILOT bill recently filed by Democratic state Sen. Ann Gillespie of Arlington Heights. The Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 board could join the effort at its meeting Thursday night.

The Bears said the surrounding community would continue to be an integral part of the planning process and that they will continue to have an "open dialogue" with residents, business owners, schools, elected officials and other stakeholders.

In response to some who have worried that the redevelopment would detract from downtown Arlington Heights' entertainment offerings, the Bears said their regional hub for entertainment, shopping and community events would "complement the established businesses and thriving community already in place."

The club has proposed an enclosed stadium on a 120-acre northwest portion of the property, and an adjoining commercial/retail and housing district on the 206 acres to the southeast. That could include restaurants, stores, offices, a hotel, a performance venue, a fitness center, townhouses and multifamily housing, parks and open spaces.

"The overarching plan will work only if the Village of Arlington Heights, surrounding municipalities, Cook County, greater Chicagoland and the State of Illinois all receive significant economic benefits, and we are confident a mega-project like this can deliver," the Bears' letter states.

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Tom Hayes, Arlington Heights mayor
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