Both horses and Chicago Bears at Arlington Park? Some, like consortium leader and mayor, like idea

A little more than a century ago, George Halas took to the gridiron in downstate Decatur on the team that would soon become the Chicago Bears.

Only seven years later, in 1927 in Arlington Heights, thousands gathered to see horses race for the first time at Arlington Park, watching what was then one of America's most popular sports.

The founding NFL franchise's decision to make an offer to buy the 326-acre racetrack property now has boosters of the sport of kings raising the possibility that both Bears and horses could coexist at a redeveloped, re-imagined Arlington Park.

"With regard to the Bears, I've seen site plans that show the track and a new Bears stadium. They can absolutely coexist on a property of that size," said Matt Murphy, the former Republican Palatine state legislator-turned-lobbyist who is working for a group that put in a bid to preserve the racetrack and redevelop around it. "As someone from this area, I think it's kind of exciting to think what that dual-use property could mean for the area.

"To me, that's a concept that I don't know that a lot of people have contemplated yet, but I think people should dare to dream what that would look like."

To be clear, the proposal Murphy is backing - officially submitted last Tuesday to Arlington Park owner Churchill Downs Inc. by one-time track President Roy Arnold and a consortium of developers and investors - calls for the track and grandstand to remain in place, while a mid-size arena suitable for a minor league hockey team is constructed. It would be part of a 60-acre entertainment district, next to a 300-unit housing development and 60-acre industrial space.

But after the Bears' bombshell announcement last Thursday expressing formal interest in the prime real estate at Euclid and Wilke roads, Arnold said Friday he'd welcome informal conversations with the Bears about a potential partnership. The smaller arena concept could easily be substituted for a larger NFL stadium, Arnold said.

"No one has reached out to me, but there's 326 acres, so it's not impossible to consider that there would be an opportunity for both venues to co-habitate and have a joint entertainment district," Arnold said. "I haven't seen where the Bears would envision being located, but certainly the space is there for this to be a win-win should they decide to make a move."

"If they prevail in a bid, we'd certainly reach out to them," Arnold said of the Bears.

But Arnold remains confident in his well-financed consortium's proposal and offer, saying he expects it to be the second-highest bid, if not "number one," though he wouldn't say if he thinks the Bears' offer might be higher.

So far, those are the only two proposals that have been revealed publicly. Churchill Downs officials would say this week only that they received "strong proposals from numerous parties" and they and their real estate broker are now evaluating the plans and offers confidentially.

A Bears spokeswoman declined to comment when asked if the organization might be willing to entertain a football stadium alongside a racetrack at Arlington Park. She referred back to the three-sentence statement released Thursday afternoon attributed to team President and CEO Ted Phillips, who said the team's offer to buy the property is part of "our obligation to explore every possible option to ensure we're doing what's best for our organization and its future."

Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes endorsed the idea of a Bears stadium and racetrack together on the sprawling property, though he acknowledged challenges to how the redeveloped site could be laid out.

"In a perfect world, you'd have - and you do have - enough land to do it," Hayes said. "The only question is would you have to at least partially tear down or reconfigure the existing grandstand. ... That's my only concern about trying to do both. I don't know if you could do it given the existing location. Certainly in a perfect world, you'd love to see the Bears and horse racing."

Hayes said the current industry standard size for an NFL stadium and associated parking is 160 acres. Arnold has said the six-story grandstand building, racing oval and surrounding parking lots is about 125 acres. That would leave some 40 acres on the massive site.

During their first in-person village board meeting since the onset of the pandemic, the mayor and village trustees Monday night are expected to vote on zoning changes that would expressly prohibit certain uses on the 326-acre property, including adult businesses, car washes, currency exchanges, kiddie parks, funeral parlors and warehouses.

A sporting facility isn't on the list of prohibitions. And the board took steps in May to prevent Churchill from placing restrictive covenants on the land as part of a sale, in the municipality's attempt to preserve the possibility of horse racing and gambling there.

The board meets at 7:30 p.m. Monday at village hall, 33 S. Arlington Heights Road.

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Matt Murphy, a former legislator from Palatine, is now lobbying on behalf of a consortium that wants to preserve horse racing at Arlington Park. But Murphy also said the racetrack could coexist with a new Chicago Bears stadium on the massive site. Daily Herald File Photo, 2016
  Could the Arlington Park site be home to both thoroughbred racing and the Chicago Bears? Mark Welsh/
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