Top suburban story of 2021: How the Arlington Park sale to the Bears was years in the making
It could be several years until the first pigskin is kicked off at a potential multibillion-dollar Chicago Bears stadium at Arlington Park, but the pending $197.2 million deal that would bring the storied NFL franchise to the suburbs was just as many years -- if not decades -- in the making.
The Bears' relocation from city to suburbs -- and specifically the racetrack in Arlington Heights -- has been a source of speculation since at least August 1975, when George "Papa Bear" Halas appeared at an Arlington Heights Chamber of Commerce luncheon. Subsequent team managers toyed with the idea of a suburban move amid negotiations to get better stadium deals in Chicago.
Meanwhile, corporate bosses at Churchill Downs Inc., the owner of the 326-acre racetrack property since 2000, have hinted -- even as recently as this month -- that an Arlington Park sale was only a matter of time.
In the first public questioning of executives from the Louisville, Kentucky-based corporation directly involved in the sale, Churchill President and Chief Operating Officer Bill Mudd told the Illinois Racing Board on Dec. 16 that the prime acreage is being sold because of the high value of the land. He reiterated a previous statement of his boss, CEO Bill Carstanjen, that the property at Euclid Avenue and Wilke Road has "a higher and better" use as something other than a racetrack.
"It just wasn't even close," Mudd said of the economics of the deal. "Part of the issue is that property at Arlington Park -- one big continuous piece of land right on the train station -- is worth a lot of money. As a public company, that, unfortunately, is the position that we get put in because we do have a fiduciary obligation to our shareholders."
What's more, Mudd blasted the 2019 state gambling expansion law that allowed Arlington to add the slots and table games officials there once lobbied for. Mudd said the economic terms and tax structure of the legislation is unfavorable to the corporate bottom line. He also pointed to the proliferation of gambling elsewhere, including forthcoming casinos in Chicago, Waukegan and Rockford that would increase competition.
But members of the racing board, the state agency that regulates the horse racing industry, challenged Mudd about whether Churchill would be competing with its own interests at the Rivers Casino, only a short drive away in Des Plaines.
Three months before Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Illinois lawmakers approved the massive gambling expansion package, Churchill finalized its purchase of a 61% majority stake in Rivers, effectively shifting its focus away from Arlington Park to the state's most lucrative gambling house. The deal allowed Churchill to expand its interests into other avenues of gambling not permitted at Arlington.
Craig Duchossois, an emeritus director on the Churchill company board of directors, said the 2019 gambling bill came "too late" and blamed state politicians for not approving legislation sooner that could have saved Arlington Park.
Duchossois, son of track Chairman Emeritus Richard Duchossois, told the Daily Herald in August that internal discussions about an eventual sale and redevelopment of the racetrack came at a board meeting years ago.
"They said, 'Guys, Arlington is an underutilized asset, and we have a fiduciary responsibility to deal with that. And Dad knew that. So it wasn't a surprise," the younger Duchossois said. "They tried to be very respectful and empathetic. And he appreciated it, and I really respected the way they treated the family in a difficult situation."
Churchill officials made it official in February 2021, when they announced the sprawling property was up for sale as a "redevelopment opportunity."
Two days after a deadline for offers had passed in June, the Bears publicly announced they had submitted a bid. In the team's bombshell announcement, Bears President/CEO Ted Phillips said the team's latest overture for Arlington Park was part of "our obligation to explore every possible option to ensure we're doing what's best for our organization and its future."
In September, just three days after a crowd of 7,500 watched the likely final horse race at Arlington Park, news broke of the Bears signing a purchase agreement for the racetrack property, putting the NFL franchise closer to building the state-of-the-art suburban stadium that Halas envisioned 46 years ago.
The agreement is "the critical next step in continuing our exploration of the property and its potential," Phillips said.
But it's by no means a done deal, with a host of approvals and permissions still needed and a due diligence period ahead of a planned late 2022 or early 2023 closing.