O'Donnell: It's time for George S. Halas Stadium at Arlington Park

  • Exercise riders wait in front of the grandstand for their jockeys in 2020 at Arlington Park.

    Exercise riders wait in front of the grandstand for their jockeys in 2020 at Arlington Park. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Mayor James T. Butts Jr. of Inglewood, Calif., was a driving force in bringing SoFi Stadium to his city. It was built on the site that housed Hollywood Park, a shuttered racetrack.

    Mayor James T. Butts Jr. of Inglewood, Calif., was a driving force in bringing SoFi Stadium to his city. It was built on the site that housed Hollywood Park, a shuttered racetrack. Associated Press

  • SoFi Stadium, home to the NFL's Rams and Charges, is in Inglewood, Calif.

    SoFi Stadium, home to the NFL's Rams and Charges, is in Inglewood, Calif. Associated Press

 
Updated 2/24/2021 9:03 PM

THE TIME TO HESITATE is through.

Churchill Downs Inc. has made its decision regarding Arlington Park.

 

Now it is urgently incumbent upon regional politicians and civic planners to begin a campaign to get a global-class Chicago Bears stadium built as a profitable symbol of the rebirth of the 326-acre site.

Fulfillment of such a bold and visioned plan would bring about a marriage of an NFL team and a suburb that was first discussed between "Papa Bear" George Halas and then-AP empress Marje Everett in 1968.

Probable price: $7.5 billion.

Reasonable target for opening: 2027.

Seating capacity: An expandable 80,000 under a retractable roof.

Acreage needed for stadium and parking: Approximately 150.

Site inclusions on remaining land: Upscale residential, lodging, limited retail, obligatory restaurants, public parks.

Other stadium uses: Myriad sports events (major NCAA championships, WrestleManias, FIFA Cup play, et al), concerts, conventions, other large-scale special events.

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The question of "How?" can only be answered if there is an enormously creative and concerted joint effort put forth by such potential game changers as Bears chairman George McCaskey, Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes and Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

The alternative is for all potential primary operatives to instead loll benignly as a once-in-a-century opportunity drifts into something as mundane as The Glen in Glenview.

The Glen -- as any North Shore denizen can tell you -- is the price-heavy, cookie-cutter development that now occupies much of the land of the former Glenview Naval Air Station.

In the late 1990s, the U.S. government decided to close the base and gift close to 1,000 acres to the village of Glenview.

Glenview officials then developed a reuse plan with sub-developers to build what is now The Glen.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

For all of its positive intent -- and this is a clear cautionary statement to Mayor Hayes and others of influence in Arlington Heights -- The Glen represents a "new Glenview" that is significantly more synthetic in texture and tone than the richly legacied remnant of the suburb to the south.

Regarding the flip of a shuttered suburban racetrack site into a world-class stadium with residential and other adjacencies, there is no municipal executive in America more versed in contemporary subtleties and nuance than Mayor James T. Butts Jr. of Inglewood, California.

Butts, 67, worked hand-on-dream with the fabulously wealthy Stan Kroenke to bring his NFL Rams in as the bellwether occupant of the new $6 billion SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, an LAX suburb of Los Angeles.

The Rams now share SoFi with the Chargers and will host Super Bowl 56 next February.

The high-tech field of dreams also will host the CFB championship game in 2023, WrestleMania 39 three months later and the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2028 Summer Olympics.

Late last week, Mayor Butts told The Daily Herald:

"Stan and I had a 30-minute meeting scheduled in 2014 to discuss what the prevailing thoughts of our city were on the remaining land of what had been Hollywood Park.

"I knew he was worth billions. He already owned 60 acres of adjacent land.

"Our meeting wound up lasting more than two hours and when it was over, there was no question both Mr. Kroenke and the city of Inglewood were positioned to win.

"Three NFL teams were circling L.A. at the time -- the Rams, the Raiders and the Chargers. There was much encouragement on the league side to put two in an incredibly high-tech stadium with tremendous access.

"Our biggest concern was we didn't want to 'bond' any element of the financing because then you're stuck with bonds for 30 years on a stadium that's going to need upgrades in 15.

"There was also a private equity firm out of the San Francisco area involved. The league put up $500 million. Stan put all of the final pieces together knowing that our city was going to do everything possible to make everything come in on time.

"And it did."

The only reminder still on-site of the racetrack that once was is the Hollywood Park Casino.

Moving forward locally, the presumption is that Mayor Hayes of Arlington Heights and key associates will be "all in" on any possibility of replacing Arlington Park with a global-class development that will leave future generations asking, "What was Arlington Park?"

The focus then moves to Bears ownership, and there are very hard realities to be dealt with in that critical compartment.

One of the biggest is that the organization is correctly perceived as one of the least-resourced and most consistently unimaginative in the NFL.

Said one longtime NFL executive: "You have the league's largest single-team market inhabited by a franchise that's playing in a leased stadium with so-so access that seats 60,000.

"That's a joke."

The executive said in today's NFL, you have to be on the edge of technology, infrastructure and multiplicity of venue use to keep up with the Joneses in Dallas, the Krafts in New England, the Teppers in Carolina and the Kroenkes in L.A.

In a magic-wand world, there would be an announcement post haste the McCaskeys -- and minority partners Pat Ryan and Andy McKenna -- are selling the team to an energized new-mill mind with deep pockets.

Short of that, the dream of a George S. Halas Stadium at Arlington Park remains attainable.

It will take atypical risk, vision and daring by current Bears owners.

Said Mayor Butts: "From my experience -- and I'm talking about my suburb, which is 52 percent Hispanic, 47 percent Black and 1 percent 'other' -- if you have an inspired plan, proper financing that does not put the host municipality at risk and a resolute 'will-get-done' attitude, toss in hard work and you can make a great thing happen."

(The Mayor also added that he is more than willing to take any communication from George McCaskey, Tom Hayes or any other 'significant people' attempting to kick-start the Bears-at-Arlington initiative. His engagement as a foundational consultant on the project could prove to be divine intervention.)

In the interim, as predicted, the Churchill Downs Inc. of CEO Bill Carstanjen is once again doing what it wants when it wants.

He remains a golden boy to CDI shareholders, who he will address in a fourth-quarter 2020 earnings call Thursday morning.

But a concurrent reality is that the village of Arlington Heights can dissuade a whole lot of potential purchasers through legally creative suggestions of the application of assorted local codes and ordinances and denials of variances.

For the greater civic good, it is not a time for little boys in short pants.

Nor is it a time for hollow semantics from suburban politicians who are facing the most compelling challenge of their years in public service.

Because without question, for Mayor Hayes and other regional civic leaders, the time to hesitate is through.

• Jim O'Donnell's Sports & Media column appears Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at jimodonnelldh@yahoo.com.

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