Arlington Park reactions: Disappointment, anger over decision to sell
Though the past couple of years haven't been the most secure of Arlington Park's nearly century of horse racing, local and state officials expressed their disappointment over how hopes for a second century came to a sudden end Tuesday.
"It's really tough," said Dave Parulo, president of Meet Chicago Northwest, the region's visitors and tourism bureau. "Arlington Park is an iconic attraction that's marked Arlington Heights since the 1920s. It's even in their logo. For tourism, it's something we've been able to promote for years."
Parulo said he couldn't guess what the site's next chapter might bring, but the location and transportation infrastructure around it make everything from a large mixed-use development to the home of a major sports team possible.
"If a careful planner gets involved, it could be a unique opportunity," he said. "I'm very hopeful. The village of Arlington Heights is a very professional community and have a very professional community development department. You adapt. I think it's important to note that this is a very first step."
Democratic state Sen. Ann Gillespie of Arlington Heights said she was disappointed when Churchill Downs Inc. chose not to host casino games at Arlington that might have kept the racecourse viable.
"I'm sorry to see Arlington Park go," she said. "It's been an institution in the Chicago area."
The expansion of other forms of gambling in Illinois have made horse racing more challenging in the state, Gillespie said.
"But I don't believe it's impossible to make a go of it," she said.
The harshest words Tuesday came in a statement released by the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association on behalf of the horse owners and trainers.
"Churchill spent two decades lobbying Illinois lawmakers for the authority to develop a casino at Arlington," the statement reads. "But since purchasing the majority stake in the nearby Rivers Casino, Churchill has all but abandoned any meaningful commitment to Illinois racing. Churchill abruptly reversed course, deep-sixed that Arlington development plan, and instead devoted itself to ensuring that Arlington could not become a gaming competitor to Rivers."
The association called Churchill's consideration of moving its racing license "disingenuous."
"The license is not Churchill's to move," association President Mike Campbell said. "Moreover, the notion that a seasoned gaming operator would relocate a racing license away from a state-of-the-art, modern racing facility near the heart of the Chicago metropolitan region to some yet-to-be-determined location is absurd.
"Churchill is just trying to obfuscate from the fact that it cares only about maximizing profit and will gladly sacrifice the spirit of Illinois law and the livelihood of working Illinoisans to serve its greed," he said.
Republican state Rep. Tom Morrison of Palatine praised Arlington Park's contributions to the Northwest suburbs.
"Thirty years after its reconstruction, it remains a unique and beautiful facility for horse racing and many other community events," Morrison said in a statement. "They've even helped most recently by serving as a COVID-19 testing site."
Morrison said Tuesday's announcement was the culmination of changes in the state's gambling laws over three decades.
"Churchill Downs is a publicly traded company, and they have a major stake in non-racing gambling activities across the country, including nearby Rivers Casino, the state's largest gambling facility by receipts," Morrison said. "The property is prime real estate for commercial, residential, or mixed use, and it's understandable that Churchill Downs' board would be looking for a buyer."
With the cooperation of local officials, a new development on the site could generate similar benefits for the area.
"There might be some parallels to what Glenview did with the former Glenview Naval Air Station, which is also near major expressways and a Metra line," Morrison said.