Why Bears land deal prohibiting a casino gets past Arlington Heights ordinance on a technicality

Property transfer documents obtained by the Daily Herald reveal the Bears are barred from opening a land-based casino at Arlington Park - a restrictive covenant that is in conflict with the spirit, if not the letter, of a 2021 Arlington Heights village ordinance that sought to preserve gambling options.

A 23-page special warranty deed filed with the Cook County clerk's office prevents the new property owner from adding casino gambling such as slots and table games - or even seeking a license - at the 326-acre site it bought from Churchill Downs Inc., for $197.2 million.

The May 3, 2021 village ordinance banned restrictive covenants for 11 types of gambling permitted under municipal code, including "gambling games conducted on riverboats."

But the 2019 state gambling expansion law removed the requirement that casinos be located on water. The gambling section in village code was written before that, and there's disagreement on whether the village could retroactively clean up its old code to include a land-based casino.

Officials at Churchill Downs, which controls a 61% stake in Rivers Casino in nearby Des Plaines, didn't respond to requests for comment about the restrictive covenant inserted into the land deal that closed Feb. 15.

The covenant - signed off in the deed documents by Churchill CEO Bill Carstanjen - runs for at least 15 years. And it would last as long as Churchill has a minimum 20% interest in a casino within a 30-mile radius of Arlington Park, but expire two years after Churchill's interest dips below 20% or exits the market, according to the legalese.

The contract language, however, would allow the Bears to pursue a sports betting lounge - and they already have.

The club has long sought a cut of revenues from a prospective sportsbook at Soldier Field. In Arlington Heights, Bears brass persuaded the village board last November to make changes to the shuttered racetrack's overlay zoning district that would list a sports wagering facility as a possible use there.

But then-team President and CEO Ted Phillips told the crowd at John Hersey High School in September that a casino wasn't part of the organization's proposed $5 billion redevelopment vision for Arlington Park.

The resumption of live thoroughbred horse racing isn't part of those conceptual site plans, either, though some local horseplayers continue to hold out hope as long as the stately six-story grandstand still stands.

Arlington Heights Village Manager Randy Recklaus said the goal at the time the May 2021 ordinance was approved - after Churchill had announced the land for sale but before the Bears declared they were a bidder - was to ensure there would be no covenants on horse racing.

"We're comfortable with the ordinance as written," Recklaus said Friday. "Our goal was really to keep Churchill Downs from permanently eliminating the possibility of horse racing. Because at the time we wrote it, we had no idea who was going to buy it and what their intentions were going to be."

Days after the final horse race in September 2021, Churchill and the Bears announced they inked a preliminary sales agreement.

After the deal closed last month, the special warranty deed containing the restrictive covenant was filed with the Cook County clerk's recording office and is accessible publicly, but the contract itself isn't.

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Bill Carstanjen
Arlington Heights Village Manager Randy Recklaus, pictured in the grandstand at Arlington Park two months after a prohibition on restrictive covenants was approved, said the casino ban included in the racetrack sale doesn't violate the letter of the law. Daily Herald File Photo, July 2021
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