Arlington Heights mayor calls accusations of coziness with Bears 'offensive'

Arlington Heights village officials shot down accusations this week that they are getting a little too cozy with the Chicago Bears in the NFL franchise's pursuit of a massive stadium and redevelopment project at Arlington Park.

The latest criticism came Monday night during the public comment portion of a village board meeting, when resident Debbie Fisher suggested Mayor Tom Hayes and others would personally benefit from the Bears' proposed $5 billion makeover of the 326-acre racetrack property.

Hayes called the accusation "offensive."

Fisher, who has lodged opposition to the stadium plans at previous board meetings, criticized the mayor for sending a letter to Bears Chairman George McCaskey in March 2021, shortly after Churchill Downs Inc. put the track up for sale.

In the letter, Hayes tells McCaskey that the village is working with Churchill Downs "to find a use that is worthy of the track's legacy."

"I would love to speak with you to discuss your organization's interest in the site and how we might work together to build something special there," Hayes wrote.

McCaskey has said the Bears didn't seek out the Arlington Park opportunity; Churchill's broker CBRE contacted the football club.

"This was your idea, Mayor Hayes, not ours," Fisher said. "This is yet again another case of profit over people. Only this time it's close to home."

"This was not my idea," Hayes responded. "If I had my druthers the racetrack would still be there for another 100 years. That was my preference.

"We don't own the property. The property was owned by Churchill Downs. They put it up for bid. We were not part of the process other than me sending a letter to the Chicago Bears saying, 'If you want to talk about it, if you want to explore this opportunity, we're very happy to do that.'"

Trustee Jim Tinaglia, who criticized the Bears' conceptual site plans last fall, said the board's job is to protect the village's 75,000 residents. In this case, that means figuring out how to redevelop a defunct piece of property, Tinaglia said.

"We are nowhere near in a position to make money off of this property except if something gets built there and the tax bills go up, every resident in this community will receive a benefit from that," he said. "That's the only upside to this."

Trustee John Scaletta, who shared Tinaglia's concern that the redevelopment could have an adverse effect on the existing village downtown, said the Bears' project is going to take "a long, long time" amid the organization's current pursuit of financing.

"So insinuating that something is happening behind closed doors is wrong. And insinuating that this process is further along than you know is wrong," Scaletta said. "Because I can tell you that everything that I know, you've seen. You've seen everything. And we just don't need people out there creating hysteria when it's not necessary."

Fisher suggested the Bears' redevelopment proposal be put up for a public vote since it would directly affect residents.

"We shouldn't have to pay a single dime for this stadium or any of the surrounding development in the proposed plan," she said. "Bottom line, my family cannot afford another financial burden whereas the Chicago Bears can afford the world."

While the Bears have said they plan to privately finance the stadium, they are looking for public help to pay for the rest of the project.

Hayes reiterated that the village would approve the project only if it's a "win-win" where taxpayers get a net financial benefit.

"We have not committed one dime of your money so far, and we will not do so without input from you and all the other residents of this community. I can assure you of that," Hayes said. "You will have an opportunity to weigh in before any of your money is spent on this proposal."

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