Da Bears to Da Burbs? What comes next in team's $197.2 million purchase of Arlington Park land
In a deal that could change the face of Arlington Heights and the Northwest suburbs for decades to come, the Chicago Bears announced Wednesday a $197.2 million purchase agreement with Churchill Downs Inc. to buy the historic Arlington Park racetrack and the sprawling property surrounding it.
While a closing is more than a year away and both buyer and seller cautioned it's not yet a done deal, the agreement at least positions Chicago's NFL franchise near the goal line for its long-rumored relocation from city to suburbs.
Bears founder George S. Halas famously made his first pitch to relocate his team from Soldier Field to Arlington Park during an Arlington Heights Chamber of Commerce luncheon in 1975.
"Finalizing the (agreement) was the critical next step in continuing our exploration of the property and its potential," Bears President and CEO Ted Phillips said in a statement Wednesday morning, confirming the news reported the night before. "Much work remains to be completed, including working closely with the village of Arlington Heights and surrounding communities, before we can close on this transaction."
"Our goal is to chart a path forward that allows our team to thrive on the field, Chicagoland to prosper from this endeavor, and the Bears organization to be ensured a strong future," Phillips continued. "We will never stop working toward delivering Bears fans the very best experience."
The deal, announced in a joint statement by the Bears, Churchill and Arlington Heights officials just after 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, comes 18 years to the day of the team's first game in the renovated Soldier Field. The spaceshiplike retrofit within the historic lakefront colonnades -- at a price tag of $690 million -- was the result of negotiations between the Bears and then-Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley the last time the team explored a move to the suburbs.
A half-hour after the formal announcement Wednesday morning, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot took to sports radio to say she's willing to negotiate with the Bears to keep them from moving to Arlington Heights, but the team hasn't come to the table. If the Bears do leave the city, Lightfoot cautioned, they'd be on the hook for breaking the lease -- a penalty of $84 million, by one estimate.
Her counterpart in Arlington Heights, Tom Hayes, reserved most of his comments Wednesday to the pre-written statement, in which he reiterated his goal for any redevelopment of the prime acreage at Euclid Road and Wilke Avenue is to put the land to its "highest and best" use.
"I can't think of a higher and better use than this one," Hayes said. "There is a long way to go as we begin this journey, and many issues for the community to discuss, but the village is committed to working with the Bears organization and all stakeholders to explore this opportunity for Arlington Heights and the Northwest suburban region."
In an interview Wednesday afternoon, Hayes declined to say whether he's seen the Bears' site plans, where a potential stadium would be placed, how large the capacity might be, and whether it could come with a dome. He also declined to answer questions about potential public financing for a stadium deal, including incentives and tax increment financing that would involve funneling some property tax money into development.
The mayor said he anticipates a construction schedule could be lengthy -- SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, took four years -- but village officials plan to meet with Arlington Park President Tony Petrillo to ensure the property is secured and safe in the meantime.
Hayes does not believe the village is being used by the Bears as leverage for a better deal at Soldier Field.
"I definitely don't think so," he said.
While Churchill has agreed to the sale, the closing is subject to the satisfaction of various conditions, officials at the Louisville, Kentucky-based racing and gambling corporation said.
The company anticipates closing the sale in late 2022 or early 2023 and plans to use the proceeds to purchase or invest in replacement property that qualifies as an Internal Revenue Code Section 1031 transaction, in which federal taxes are deferred, officials said.
Churchill first announced in February it was selling Arlington Park, which has hosted horse races since 1927 and held its likely final races Saturday.
CEO Bill Carstanjen on Wednesday called the sale an extraordinary process and congratulated the Bears on submitting the winning bid.
"It is clear they are committed to an exciting vision for their team and their fans. We wish them the greatest success and are excited for the opportunity this brings to the village of Arlington Heights and the future economic development of this unique property," he said.
Churchill officials declined to answer additional questions about the bidding process or next steps in the sale. And neither Phillips nor Bears Chairman George McCaskey were made available for interviews.
Among other groups to submit bids before a mid-June deadline were Chicago-based Glenstar Properties, Schaumburg-based UrbanStreet Group and Naperville-based Crown Community Development -- all proposing a host of mixed-use developments -- and a consortium led by former Arlington Park President Roy Arnold, who wanted to preserve the oval and grandstand for horse racing.
Arnold said Wednesday he believes his group and the Bears were the two finalists being considered by Churchill after four rounds of bidding that started with about 30 proposals. From there, Churchill and its broker CBRE winnowed it down to seven or eight, then three, then two, as offers were increased, Arnold said.
"We gave it our best shot. I think we had a quality proposal," said Arnold, who called the process "fair."
But still not giving up hope for horse racing to continue in the short or long term at Arlington, Arnold said he planned to reach out to the Bears about a potential partnership that would make Arlington a multisport destination for football and horse racing.