Bears can continue to gain revenue from Arlington Park billboard, board decides

Even as the Bears flirt with Naperville, Arlington Heights village board members didn't use any leverage of their own Monday when they granted an extension to an electronic billboard approval for the new Arlington Park property owner.

The sign variations, reaffirmed without discussion via the board's consent agenda Monday night, will allow the team to retain an extra revenue stream first granted to Churchill Downs Inc. in 2017.

The routine agenda item was scheduled to be considered by the board even before the club confirmed Friday that new President Kevin Warren met with newly elected Naperville Mayor Scott Wehrli to discuss the possibility of building a new NFL stadium.

Wehrli's counterpart in Arlington Heights, Tom Hayes, said after the meeting Monday night that the sign extension request was "not a big deal" for him and the other board members.

At the same time, he encouraged officials at three Arlington Heights-area school districts to see "the big picture" during their tense ongoing negotiations with the NFL franchise over property tax assessments and payments for the next two years.

The Bears closed on the $197.2 million purchase of the 326-acre former racetrack in February. About a year before that, the board agreed to extend Churchill's sign variation through June 30, 2023 in hopes that a sale would be complete by then.

Now, the Bears want to continue to use the billboard pending evaluation of their potential redevelopment of the property, village officials said.

The 20-by-60-foot double-sided digital sign and is seen by thousands who drive along Route 53 every day. Electronic changeable signs and those promoting off-premises advertising are otherwise prohibited in Arlington Heights, but there are similar signs along the highway in neighboring communities.

In granting the sign permissions in 2017, board members were sympathetic to the financial condition of the town's major tourist attraction that had experienced a precipitous decline in horse race wagering.

When proposed, the billboard was said to generate $120,000 in annual net revenue for Arlington Park.

Hayes said he hasn't spoken with Warren or anyone else at the Bears organization since he got a heads-up from them about the Naperville meeting Friday.

The mayor said he has spoken with several elected officials and staff at Northwest Suburban High School District 214, Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 and Palatine Township Elementary District 15.

"I know their focus is students and their parents and the schools, but I'm trying to make sure they see the benefits we'd all reap," he said.

Last week, a settlement was reached among the school districts, Churchill Downs and Cook County Board of Review over the 2022 tax bill, putting it at $7.8 million. But under the Bears ownership and Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi's recent reassessment, it is due to jump to $16.1 million unless the club can strike a deal with the schools beforehand.

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