Still making money, Arlington Park billboard can stay up at least until Bears sale is official

This story has been updated to correct the date on which the billboard initially was approved.

Though its last horse race was held more than five months ago, Arlington Park won't have to take down a billboard that's still generating revenue as part of the track's downscaled operations, Arlington Heights trustees decided Monday.

The 20-by-60-foot double-sided digital billboard, along Route 53 near the old practice track and backstretch barns, received approvals from the village board five years to the day Sunday. Though electronic changeable signs and those promoting off-premises advertising are prohibited by village code, board members were sympathetic to what had been the town's major tourist attraction, which had experienced a precipitous decline in horse race wagering.

But the 2017 approval came with a caveat: that the 95-foot-tall sign come down if the track were to cease operations.

Just days after the last race Sept. 25, 2021, is when track owner Churchill Downs Inc. made the bombshell announcement that it was selling the property to the Chicago Bears. But the $197.2 million deal isn't expected to close until the first half of 2023, CEO Bill Carstanjen said late last month.

On Monday night, Arlington Park President Tony Petrillo - one of five employees who remain at the track - told the village board that the facility is still operating as it did in the non-racing months.

Petrillo said he and his staff continue to pursue expos, trade shows, car company ride-and-drive events, and other leasing opportunities. In an earlier email to village officials, Petrillo wrote that they're even exploring opportunities to host concerts and special events utilizing the grandstand.

The 326-acre property currently hosts an import export quarantine operation, serves as a COVID-19 testing site, has hosted an electronics recycling and document shredding event, and is used by Arlington Heights and other municipalities for police and fire vehicle training, Petrillo said.

While the billboard provides a means to advertise the facility for rental opportunities, it also provides revenues to retain the full-time jobs to service those events, Petrillo said.

"It's really a necessary operation for us to be able to continue the billboard," Petrillo said.

So the board Monday night unanimously agreed to extend the sign variation to June 2023 - when the sale to the Bears may be complete, and if not, the board can revisit the billboard issue, village officials said.

"While I'm not thrilled with your parent company, I am not going to let that sway my decision," Trustee John Scaletta said. "I think it's important that the people that are employed continue to be employed. I think that the billboard should remain in hopes that the next user will use it to the best benefit that it possibly could."

  In 2017, the Arlington Heights village board approved Arlington Park's 95-foot-tall sign with one caveat: that it come down if the track were to cease operations. Paul Valade/, October 2021
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