Why tax expert, former state rep says Arlington grandstand's days could be numbered

  • The six-story Arlington Park grandstand, which opened in 1989 after a fire devastated the old one, remains standing after the Chicago Bears' purchase of the property closed last month. But a tax and assessment expert believes the stately building's days are numbered.

      The six-story Arlington Park grandstand, which opened in 1989 after a fire devastated the old one, remains standing after the Chicago Bears' purchase of the property closed last month. But a tax and assessment expert believes the stately building's days are numbered. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Ed Sullivan

    Ed Sullivan

Posted3/27/2023 5:30 AM

While the Chicago Bears haven't officially said if or when the stately Arlington Park grandstand built by Dick Duchossois will be demolished, its days are likely numbered, according to one expert.

Ed Sullivan, a former Republican state representative from Mundelein and former Fremont Township assessor, said it only makes financial sense that the Bears would tear down the six-story grandstand, as the NFL franchise seeks a massive property tax break from state legislators.


"I'm surprised it hasn't happened yet. I'm surprised they haven't torn down the facility because they're paying taxes on this right now," said Sullivan, who now works as a lobbyist but isn't advising the team, which has retained three lobbying firms.

Bears officials didn't provide a timeline on when the grandstand on the north side of the dormant racing oval might come down.

Properties that sit vacant and aren't producing income -- the last horse race at Arlington was in September 2021 -- can have a reduced assessed value. That value can be reduced even more "by just bringing it to vacant land," said Sullivan, who was the elected Fremont Township assessor from 1993 to 2017 and the 51st state House District rep from 2003 to 2017.

Clearing the property of structures -- including the towering grandstand -- would be a key consideration amid the proposed financing mechanism the Bears are pushing at the state Capitol. Called Payments in Lieu of Taxes, the property tax break is being envisioned to help bankroll the NFL franchise's proposed $5 billion stadium and mixed-use redevelopment of Arlington Park.

Under the program, the assessed value of the property would be frozen a year before the Illinois Department of Revenue certified the redevelopment as a "mega project" -- one that involves a minimum $500 million investment. Then, instead of paying more taxes as the property grows in value, the Bears would make annual payments to schools and other local taxing bodies that are negotiated with the village of Arlington Heights.

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The arrangement could last up to 40 years.

"If I'm their property tax lawyer, I'm going to the county and saying, 'This is a commercial property. It's not producing income. So my value should be even less,'" Sullivan said.

"At some point they are going to tear that down," he added. "This PILOT, they're going to freeze the assessed value on vacant land."

The Bears closed the $197.2 million purchase of the 326-acre shuttered racetrack from Churchill Downs Inc. Feb. 15, just as the first installment of 2022 Cook County property tax bills came out. Online electronic checks totaling more than $1.5 million for the Arlington Heights property's five tax parcels were paid last Monday by the Bears, according to Cook County treasurer's office records obtained by the Daily Herald.

It's no surprise then that school districts in the area of the Bears' new property have a hired a lobbyist to represent their interests as legislative negotiations continue, Sullivan said.


Officials in Palatine Township Elementary District 15, Northwest Suburban High School District 214 and Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 fear the financing plan could take a significant cut of their future property tax revenues, while adding an unknown number of students to their enrollments.

"If condos or townhomes or some type of residential development is built with this, you don't want that assessed value frozen," Sullivan said of the school districts. "That's how they're going to make the money to take care of these kids."

The Bears haven't revealed exactly how many residential units they're proposing. But conceptual plans for their 206-acre mixed-use portion of the redevelopment do include higher-density, multifamily properties of four to eight stories close to the train station, plus lower-density townhouses and multifamily units of two to four stories moving south and east through the site.

The preliminary master plan also includes restaurants, stores, offices, a hotel, a performance venue, a fitness center, parks and open spaces.

From a political perspective, Sullivan said the ball is now in the Bears' court to demonstrate to skeptical legislators what the net economic impact of the redevelopment would mean for the state. While the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and other business groups friendly to Republicans back the legislation, Chicago Democrats could be convinced if tax revenues from the development were directed to social services or other projects, Sullivan said.

He doesn't believe the legislation will have much movement during the current spring session, allowing negotiations to take place this summer heading into the fall veto session and likely early next year.

"The biggest discussion going forward is how do city of Chicago legislators vote to, in essence, do something to allow the Bears to leave, and be part of that," said Sullivan, a former assistant House GOP leader. "So what do they get in return? And that's kind of Illinois in a nut shell. It's all a negotiation."

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