Jim O'Donnell: Churchill Inc. perfectly positioned to donate land for Halas Stadium

  • Gifting the Arlington Park land to the village would be a welcome move by Churchill Downs Inc.

      Gifting the Arlington Park land to the village would be a welcome move by Churchill Downs Inc. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Updated 3/3/2021 2:31 PM

FUTURE TOP COLLEGE CURRICULA may one day refer to it as, "The Audacity of Ask."

Or, "How the village of Arlington Heights constructively worked with Churchill Downs Inc. after the corporate vaporization of an iconic horse racetrack to still benefit the greater civic good."


The question is a direct one.

It's to be generated pronto after precise consideration by Mayor Tom Hayes and his staff at the VAH to Mr. William Carstanjen, CEO, Churchill Downs Inc.

The essence:

"In light of your decision to sell the estimated 326 acres of Arlington Park in furtherance of out-of-state profit, the residents of Arlington Heights respectfully request that your corporation instead make a gift of the land to our village.

"Besides the significant goodwill that will accrue to CDI in Illinois and its future business goals in the state, your munificent transfer will also enable our village to both preserve its quality of life and most proactively develop best possible complementary utilization of that legacied tract."


Acquiring the land would then clear the way for Mayor Hayes and associates to hire appropriate consultants and begin direct dialogue with Bears chairman George McCaskey over the financing and construction of the new, global-class George S. Halas Stadium at Arlington Park.

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(McCaskey, through staff, declined Wednesday to offer his perspective on the developing dynamic to The Daily Herald. The Bears' reply did say, "Thank you for reaching out but the club has nothing to add here." ... Yet.)

IF HAYES WRITES the communication to CDI -- and he must take the shot on behalf of his constituency -- Carstanjen is left to ultimately answer "yes" or "no."

Some benefits of "yes" to CDI:

• Forestall any of the growing calls for a sweeping governmental review of all licenses of privilege that CDI currently holds in Illinois;

• In partnership with Neil Bluhm, bolster the CDI hopes for the license to operate the upcoming casino in Waukegan and some sort of profit participation in the Chicago temple of chance to come;


• With one bold stroke -- and at the comparatively incremental cost of the AP land -- flip the regional image of CDI as a calloused business carnivore into that of a company crisply sensitive and enhancing to host communities past, present and in the future;

• Leave open the possibility of a CDI/Bluhm presence of some sort at the new Halas Stadium and adjacent mixed-use development.

Some risks of "no" by Carstanjen:

• Set the stage for the village of Arlington Heights to move forward as a "deep safety" adversary to prevent civically dissonant usage of the racetrack land and scare off potentially diminishing buyers;

• Prod the new post-Mike Madigan era of legislators in Springfield to revisit CDI's "pick 'n choose" application of 2019 state law which would have brought adjunct gaming revenues to Arlington Park and saved thoroughbred racing at the local oval;

• Allow a window to remain for a detailed advisory to Gov. J.B. Pritzker and his Illinois Gaming Board requesting that all CDI actions in the killing of Arlington Park be factored in to future licensing and renewals involving the corporation's businesses of privilege in the state.

FIRST-PHASE FLOATING BALLS regarding the campaign to build Halas Stadium at Arlington Park remain: the CDI land, the McCaskey family intent along with franchise financial capabilities and the vigor and vision of the people currently in charge of Arlington Heights.

Regarding the latter, Mayor Hayes said that his "internal committee" met most recently late Tuesday afternoon as it continues to assess options forward regarding the apparently inevitable redevelopment of the Arlington Park land.

"Given the size of the property and complexity of associated issues, we don't expect anything to happen overnight," the West Point grad (Class of '78) and accomplished marathon runner said.

"My goal is to make sure that the property is put to its highest and best use for Arlington Heights and the surrounding region."

From that region, Hayes and staff received an initial vote of confidence this week from Palatine Mayor Jim Schwantz.

He's the Super Bowl champ (Cowboys, SB 30) ex-NFLer who has worked with informed diligence as a Bears game-day wraparound analyst on WBBM-AM (780) since 2002.

"I have no doubt that the elected officials and professionals in Arlington Heights will do what is best for the city of Arlington Heights and the region at large," Schwantz told The Daily Herald.

AS FOR CARSTANJEN, he's back bunkered down in Louisville after a most celebratory 4Q-2020 investors call last week.

Scant mention of the probable sale -- or gift -- and death of Arlington Park was made.

If Churchill's Groundhog's Day tradition holds, Carstanjen will not be heard from again until Kentucky Derby Week in May.

That is, until he receives the letter requesting that CDI gratefully cede the racetrack land to the village of Arlington Heights for its 94 years of compliant association.

And it all begins with Mayor Tom Hayes and VAH staff having the audacity to ask.

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

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