Your NPR news source
Arlington Heights stadium rendering

A rendering of an aerial view of the stadium site in Arlington Heights.

Courtesy of Chicago Bears

Chicago Bears buy Arlington International Racecourse for possible stadium

The Chicago Bears may or may not move to Arlington Heights, but the team is now a huge landowner in the village.

The Bears said Wednesday that they have acquired the 326-acre former Arlington International Racecourse as a potential site for a new stadium and a “multipurpose entertainment district.” Bears spokesman Scott Hagel confirmed the sale by Churchill Downs was for $197.2 million, a deal that severs the 95-year-old track’s connection to the horse racing business.

In a lengthy statement, the Bears emphasized that buying the site provides no certainty of a new stadium. The acquisition, however, could put pressure on Chicago officials trying to keep the Bears at Soldier Field and on Arlington Heights officials who are being asked for tax subsidies.

It also means that if the Bears stay in Chicago, they’ll own a huge asset in Arlington Heights they wouldn’t need after all.

“Finalizing the purchase does not guarantee the land will be developed, but it is an important next step in our ongoing evaluation of the opportunity,” the team said. “There is still a tremendous amount of due diligence work to be done to determine if constructing an enclosed state-of-the-art stadium and multipurpose entertainment district is feasible.”

Its statement went on to extol the projected $9.4 billion in economic benefits for the Chicago area and to reiterate that the Bears want no tax help for the stadium itself, just for other development on the property. Still to be seen is whether that argument will mean much in Arlington Heights and surrounding towns, where residents have voiced concerns about traffic, crowds and the impact on local schools if the development includes new residences. Others have voiced support for having the Bears nearby.

The village has hired a consultant to review the Bears’ economic projections. A bill in Springfield backed by some business groups would let the Bears negotiate annual property tax payments to local governments rather than see the bills rise dramatically as the site is developed.

The Bears have emphasized they need “property tax certainty” to pursue the development. They’ve also issued their analysis of the purported benefits of the tax legislation.

The team said, “The overarching plan will work only if the Village of Arlington Heights, surrounding municipalities, Cook County, greater Chicagoland and the State of Illinois all receive significant economic benefits, and we are confident a megaproject like this can deliver.”

Arlington Heights Mayor Thomas Hayes said, “We’re very excited about this unique opportunity and very appreciative that the Bears have chosen to make a major investment in our community.”

Hayes said the village will work to make sure residents don’t bear the burden of any tax incentives for the Bears. On that basis, Hayes said, he believes most members of the Village Board also support the project. In November, the village approved a predevelopment agreement with the Bears, setting out general rules for pursuing the development but making no guarantees.

The Bears emphasized that they will continue a five-monthlong process of engaging area residents and government officials in developing any plans.

The statement concluded: “While this closing marks a major development in the ongoing evaluation, there has been no decision that the development of the recently acquired property will occur. But today’s news is nonetheless an exciting update and positions our state and the Chicagoland region to be able to host world-class entertainment and sporting events on an unprecedented scale.

“We look forward to continuing this evaluation with the Village of Arlington Heights, surrounding governmental bodies and the General Assembly in the coming months, and conveying what we believe is necessary to transform the recently purchased, largely dormant Arlington Heights property into one of the most iconic megaproject entertainment and destination points in the world.”

At Soldier Field, the Bears have a lease that expires in 2033. The Illinois Sports Facilities Authority has said taxpayers still owe $631 million on notes issued to pay for Soldier Field’s 2003 renovation.

Jay Rembert, 41, who has been a fan of the Bears since he was a child, said he loved the move, and though he still has fond feelings about Soldier Field, he thinks the team has outgrown the stadium’s current layout.

“I love it! No offense to Soldier Field, but it’s very congested and condensed in that area,” Rembert said. “I think the new stadium would be beneficial for every Bears fan, not to mention more seats for more fans to celebrate.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration has responded to the team’s Arlington Heights overtures with plans to improve Soldier Field and add a roof to it, work that city officials said could be done at far less cost to the Bears than a new stadium elsewhere.

The plan was seen by some as a Hail Mary pass to keep the Bears. The city has offered a plan with an estimated cost of $2.2 billion but hasn’t said how the money would be raised.

The mayor’s office said the news about the Bears’ land acquisition closing was expected and in some ways is good for the city’s interests. The Bears could not negotiate with Chicago while the Arlington Heights sale was pending.

A statement from Lightfoot’s office said: “All of us die-hard Bears’ fans, the Mayor included, know and believe that the Chicago Bears should remain in Chicago. So, now that the land deal has closed, we have an even better opportunity to continue making the business case as to why the Bears should remain in Chicago and why adaptations to Soldier Field can meet and exceed all of the Bear’s future needs. There is simply no doubt that the economic benefits for the team of staying in a reimagined Soldier Field significantly outweigh those gained in a move to the suburbs.

“Due to the Bears’ legal restrictions in the pre-purchase phase, the City was unable to engage in direct negotiations with the Bears while the land was under contract. Now that the deal has been completed, we look forward to negotiating and convincing the Bears that the team’s best future remains in our beloved city of Chicago.”

Chicagoan Marc Ganis has advised numerous NFL teams on their stadium financing. He has closely followed the Bears stadium saga for decades, including former team President Michael McCaskey’s flirtations with sites in Gary, Indiana; Hoffman Estates; the Near West Side; and the ill-fated McDome project adjacent to McCormick Place.

Ganis said he was “not the least” bit surprised that the Bears closed on the racetrack. He said the recent decision to hire Kevin Warren as president and chief executive of the Bears, replacing retiring CEO Ted Phillips, made that decision almost a given.

As chief operating officer of the Minnesota Vikings, Warren oversaw construction of the Vikings’ $1.13 billion U.S. Bank Stadium. The domed stadium was the largest public-private construction project in Minnesota history.

“The Bears buying the land, closing on the land, tells us three key factors,” Ganis said. “No. 1, they absolutely want to build a stadium there. No. 2, they’ve done the initial environmental and land-use evaluations, and they’ve come out fine. And No. 3, they feel they’re gonna get at least local political support sufficient to be able to build the stadium and the ancillary development.”

Ganis said he has viewed the Arlington Heights stadium as a “done deal” ever since the Bears “signed a contract for the option” to purchase the land.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t obstacles to overcome.

“You could have a recession — a massive recession. You could have COVID. Construction prices could skyrocket. We could have another ’08 or ’09 banking crisis,” Ganis said. “There are lots of things that could delay it. But arguably there aren’t many things that would deny it.”

Contributing: Emmanuel Camarillo