Arlington owner confirms deal with Bears
Crain’s Chicago | Danny Ecker | September 28, 2021
The NFL team has a deal to buy the racetrack for $197 million. But Mayor Lightfoot says she’s still waiting to talk to the Bears to find out how to keep the team at Soldier Field. “I can’t negotiate by myself.”
The Chicago Bears have inked an agreement to pay more than $197 million for the Arlington International Racecourse property in Arlington Heights, according to the team and track owner Churchill Downs.
The parties this morning announced the agreement for the 326-acre property, boosting the prospect of the Bears ultimately building a new stadium in the northwest suburb and relocating there after their lease at Chicago-based Soldier Field expires in 2033—or perhaps sooner. Churchill Downs said its deal to sell the property is expected to close in late 2022 or early 2023.
Speaking Wednesday morning on 670-AM The Score, Mayor Lori Lightfoot discussed the need to improve the experience at Soldier Field and said she’s interested in negotiating with the Bears, but the team has yet to have substantive conversations with City Hall about what they want at the lakefront stadium.
“We have attempted to understand what their interests are for months, and they have not shared them,” she said. “We were supposed to meet yesterday and they canceled. We can’t operate in the dark. I don’t have a magic eight ball to divine what the Bears want. Obviously we have some sense of it. But you’ve got to put your cards on the table and figure out what’s possible or not possible.”
Lightfoot said she has had two conversations in the past six months with Chicago Bears Chairman George McCaskey, but that she’s still awaiting more specifics of what would make Soldier Field work for the team. “I can’t negotiate by myself.”
She added that she has assembled a small group “that is going to start looking at what we can be doing really from the Shedd (Aquarium) down to McCormick Place, to maximize the value of this incredible asset and really make the fan experience—whether they’re coming for a Bears game or they’re coming for a concert—something that is really enjoyable and can be there as a year-round revenue generator.”
The mayor also stressed that there’s only so much she can do to fix “long-standing issues” the team has with an agreement they cut with the city 20 years ago.
“All I can do is look at the present and the future, and I’m more than willing to do that,” she said. “But we’re going to do, as I said, what’s in the best interest of the taxpayers to maximize revenue.”
“You know the math on municipal stadiums and financing,” she continued. “And at a time when we’re going through a recovery from an epic economic meltdown as a result of COVID-19, we’ve got to be smart about how we are spending taxpayer dollars. And I intend to do just that.”
Lightfoot was also asked during the radio segment about the prospect of the creation of a sportsbook at Soldier Field. On Sept. 20, WBEZ reported the Bears organization and the Lightfoot administration were at loggerheads over rejected efforts to open a sports betting lounge at the stadium.
The mayor declined to comment on specifics of those discussions, but said she wants to ensure the advent of sportsbooks at local pro sports venues doesn’t undercut revenue at a potential casino in the city. “We want to make sure we maximize that opportunity.”
In a statement Wednesday morning, Bears President and CEO Ted Phillips said the team is “excited to have executed a purchase and sale agreement (PSA) for the Arlington Park property.”
“We are grateful to Churchill Downs Inc. for their efforts to reach this point. We also appreciate the support of Mayor Tom Hayes and the village of Arlington Heights,” Phillips said. “Finalizing the PSA was the critical next step in continuing our exploration of the property and its potential. Much work remains to be completed, including working closely with the village of Arlington Heights and surrounding communities, before we can close on this transaction. Our goal is to chart a path forward that allows our team to thrive on the field, Chicagoland to prosper from this endeavor, and the Bears organization to be ensured a strong future. We will never stop working toward delivering Bears fans the very best experience. We will continue to provide updates on our progress at the appropriate time.”
Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen added: “This has been an extraordinarily competitive bid process. Congratulations to the Chicago Bears for their professionalism and perseverance. It is clear they are committed to an exciting vision for their team and their fans. We wish them the greatest success and are excited for the opportunity this brings to the village of Arlington Heights and the future economic development of this unique property.”
Lightfoot tweeted a response to the news late Tuesday after it was first reported by online sports publication the Athletic:
My statement still stands on the Bears: my admin remains committed to continuing the work to keep the team in Chicago. As I have said numerous times, our door in City Hall remains open.
A spokesperson for the mayor’s office issued a statement on the news:
“We are not surprised by this move. We remain committed to continuing the work to keep the team in Chicago and have advised the Bears that we remain open to discussions. However, just as the Bears view this as a business decision so does the City,” the statement said. “This season, Soldier Field signed a major contract with the Chicago Fire and just last weekend Soldier Field hosted the Shamrock Series—both of which are lucrative for the Chicago Park District and local economy. These examples and others demonstrate that Soldier Field remains a very sought-after venue, and, as the mayor has said many times, overall, the city and Park District must explore all options to both enhance the visitor and fan experience at Soldier Field year-round and maximize revenues. Therefore, we must do what’s in the best economic interests of our taxpayers and maximize the financial benefits at the important asset that is Soldier Field. As for the Bears, the mayor has said numerous times, our door in City Hall remains open to engage the Bears.”
The Arlington deal is not the first time the Bears have expressed interest in a suburban alternative to its cramped—by NFL standards—digs within the city’s Museum Campus. Since the 1970s, the team has expressed interest in a variety of suburban properties from time to time, with 1995 being an especially active year for such scouting: That year, the Bears announced they had acquired an option to purchase land in Hoffman Estates and also said management had looked at locations in Aurora and Northwest Indiana.
A threat to move to Elk Grove Village in 1998 preceded a commitment from the city to remodel Soldier Field for $587 million in 2002.
Arlington International held its last horse race on Sept. 25 after track owner Churchill Downs announced in June that it was evaluating purchase offers for the property.