A sign of good will? Arlington Heights OKs Bears’ billboard extension request despite focus on lakefront stadium

A little more than a month after the Arlington Heights village board told a small-business owner to tear down the revenue-generating billboards on his property, the elected panel Tuesday granted the Bears’ request to keep up a digital billboard on the vacant Arlington Park property.

Approval of another one-year extension to village sign code variations originally granted in 2017 — when the facility was still operating as a horse-racing track — was pulled from the board’s Tuesday night consent agenda by Trustee Wendy Dunnington, who was the lone “no” vote in the 8-1 tally.

Even though the initial billboard approval came with the caveat that the sign come down were the track to cease operations, Arlington Heights officials have now granted extensions three times.

“I agree with the original purpose of the billboard: It was to provide revenue for the racetrack and attract more visitors and events,” Dunnington said. “Since the racetrack is gone, I think it’s time for the billboard to be removed. In my opinion billboards are an eyesore.”

The vote came a week after Bears President and CEO Kevin Warren told the Daily Herald he isn’t ready to put the 326-acre property up for sale, despite an organizational shift in focus to try to build a new stadium on the Chicago lakefront.

  All structures have been cleared from the 326-acre Arlington Park property since the Chicago Bears took ownership of it in February 2023. The organization earlier this year announced a shift in focus to developing a new football stadium on the Chicago lakefront, but both the city and suburban plans are in limbo. Paul Valade/, March 2024

Elaena Harris, associate counsel for the NFL franchise, made the formal request to allow the 20-by-60-foot double-sided electronic billboard to stay in place alongside Route 53 “in order to support (the Bears’) ongoing operation of the property as it plans for the property’s long-term redevelopment,” according to a letter to Village Manager Randy Recklaus.

Recklaus said he was supportive of the extension through June 30, 2025 “in expectation of the continuation of discussions” about the property’s future.

The first extension came in March 2022, when then-owner Churchill Downs had already inked a preliminary deal to sell the land to the Bears, followed by one in June 2023, just months after the team closed on its $197.2 million purchase and Warren took the helm as team president.

With some exceptions — the Arlington Park billboard, for instance — Arlington Heights has a general prohibition on off-premises advertising signage.

What’s believed to be the only other remaining billboards in town are at 315 W. Rand Road. But the village board last month ordered the property owner to remove the signs within five years.

  Arlington Heights village board members last month ordered these two double-sided billboards next to an auto repair shop on Rand Road to come down within five years. Joe Lewnard/, May 2024

Arlington Performance Center auto repair shop owner Chris Plummer said the two double-sided static signs generate $8,000 a year in revenue and help pay his property taxes. However, board members said keeping the signs — considered legally nonconforming, having been installed prior to the site’s 1981 annexation — would hinder ongoing beautification efforts along the Rand Road corridor.

Mayor Tom Hayes said the billboards owned by Plummer and the Bears are “apples and oranges,” agreeing with Recklaus’ characterization that the latter’s location is appropriate due to its proximity to other billboards along Route 53 in neighboring towns.

Hayes, Dunnington and Trustee Nicolle Grasse asked for lettering below the electronic signs to be repaired; the last letter “L” in “Arlington International” is missing.

John Bostrom, the Bears’ senior adviser of operations and safety, told the panel the team has a vendor that can fix billboard issues, but would first have to figure out the cost.

  John Bostrom, the Bears’ senior adviser of operations and safety, from right, and Stacie Nelson, the team's procurement and operations specialist, speak at the Arlington Heights village board meeting Tuesday, as Village Manager Randy Recklaus and Assistant Village Manager Diana Mikula look on. Christopher Placek/

“That is something we’ll take back to the team to evaluate and follow up with that request,” Bostrom said.

Hayes suggested putting back one letter, or just taking them all down.

“But I don’t think there’s a big expense involved in that,” the mayor said.

Stacie Nelson, the Bears’ procurement and operations specialist, then promised the team would do a “face-lift.”

Team officials didn’t say how much revenue they collect from the billboard, but it was said to have generated $120,000 a year for the old racetrack.

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