1ST AND LONG: One year down, many years to go before Bears play in Arlington Heights
"Chicago Bears, Churchill Downs Incorporated and Village of Arlington Heights Release Statements Regarding Arlington Park."
It was with that news release that arrived in reporters' email inboxes at 7:31 a.m. a year ago today that the suburbs and football fans everywhere learned of a tentative $197.2 million deal that could change the face of the region and a storied NFL franchise for decades to come.
Bears officials have cautioned there's a long way to go -- perhaps a decade -- before the first snap at a new stadium on the old racecourse grounds. Top team brass and their hired consultants are still performing due diligence on the pending purchase, and even if the deal does close -- expected late this year or early 2023 -- they've said it's unknown if they will develop it as envisioned.
The Bears still need a series of zoning approvals from Arlington Heights, but perhaps more crucially, the club is trying to secure public financing from the village and state for a surrounding mixed-use redevelopment that would adjoin a stadium, which the team has pledged to pay for without taxpayer money.
In total, the project at Route 53 and Northwest Highway is estimated to cost $5 billion and would be one of the largest in state history.
Here's a look at what's transpired over the last year and what's to come as the Bears eye a new den in the suburbs.
Sept. 29, 2021:
The Bears' announcement came with swift reaction -- from residents in local coffee shops expressing excitement about their possible new neighbors, to nearby business owners hoping to make a buck over such a move.
Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes said he couldn't think of a "higher and better use" for the shuttered 326-acre racetrack property, while committing to work with the Bears organization and community stakeholders.
His counterpart in Chicago, Lori Lightfoot, took to sports radio a half-hour after the formal announcement to say she's willing to negotiate with the Bears to keep them from moving, but also cautioned that if they do, they'd be on the hook for breaking their lease at Soldier Field.
It's been a year since the Chicago Bears and Churchill Downs Inc. announced a $197.2 million purchase agreement for the 326-acre Arlington Park property. A preliminary concept plan calls for a football stadium on the northwest portion of the site close to Route 53 -- where today a billboard advertises the team's partnership with Churchill's Rivers Casino in Des Plaines.
- Paul Valade | Staff Photographer, 2021
Oct. 4, 2021:
At the first village board meeting since the announcement, Hayes tried to reassure residents skeptical about the Bears' possible move to town that it's not a done deal, he hasn't committed taxpayer funds to it, and the public will be involved in what's expected to be an extensive approval process.
In an interview after the meeting, the mayor said providing tax dollars to the redevelopment would be a "last resort." He also said the project could boost property values while helping keep the village's property tax levy stable.
Nov. 8, 2021:
As the Bears were playing on "Monday Night Football," Arlington Heights officials were at village hall for the first night of 2022 budget discussions. Village Manager Randy Recklaus said the coming year of planning, reviews and approvals related to the Bears' proposal for Arlington Park would involve nearly every village department. "The redevelopment project there will be like no project any of us have ever worked on," Recklaus said.
Jan. 10, 2022:
At a separate news conference to announce the firings of the general manager and head coach, team Chairman George McCaskey and President/CEO Ted Phillips make their first public statements about the pending property transaction. They say they didn't go out of their way to seek out the land; instead, they were contacted by the seller. Phillips is named the point man on the stadium project.
"And I think what's important now is that our focus for long-term development is exclusively on that property at Arlington Park," Phillips said.
The Bears confirm they've retained at least three consultants to help with preliminary plans for a new stadium and surrounding redevelopment: Manica Architecture, a Kansas City-based designer that will draw up initial stadium blueprints; CAA Icon, a Denver-based strategic management consulting firm for sports and entertainment facility owners, operators and professional teams; and Jones Lang LaSalle, the Chicago-based commercial real estate firm.
State Rep. Joe Sosnowski, a Rockford Republican, files a resolution that urges the team to move to Arlington Heights for the economic development and transportation access benefits it could provide. At the same time, he says the relocation should happen without the team requesting incentives from local or state government.
Months in the making, Lightfoot makes her pitch to keep the Bears at Soldier Field by releasing her working group's plan to dome the stadium at a potential cost of $2.2 billion. Naming rights and sponsorships would be part of the deal, which also calls for an expansion of seating capacity, suites and other amenities.
The mayor argues the city's plan makes the most economic sense for the franchise, versus having to build from scratch in the suburbs. But the Bears say they're not pursuing alternative stadium deals or sites while they're under contract with Churchill Downs.
"The only potential project the Chicago Bears are exploring for a new stadium development is Arlington Park," a team statement said.
A day after scheduling a community meeting to discuss initial redevelopment plans, Phillips says he plans to retire in February 2023 after 40 years with the team.
The Bears release conceptual renderings for a transit-oriented, mixed-use and entertainment district anchored by a domed stadium -- sufficient to host the Super Bowl, college football playoffs and the college basketball Final Four -- along with an open letter vowing not to ask for tax dollars for the stadium portion of the project.
That came just hours before a village board meeting where Americans for Prosperity Illinois, a conservative political advocacy group, submitted its petition for a local anti-corporate welfare ordinance. Though the ordinance doesn't mention the Bears specifically, it would prohibit the municipality from "offering or extending any financial incentive to any business or corporation to operate in the village."
Also that night, the board hired two consultants for studies on the economic, traffic and parking impacts of a Bears relocation. The team is paying the $203,000 consultant fees through an escrow account the village is requiring of the team.
At a two-hour public meeting at John Hersey High School, McCaskey and Phillips are joined by their consulting architects and engineers to detail their vision: an enclosed stadium on the 120-acre northwest portion of the property, and an adjoining commercial/retail and housing district on the 206 acres to the southeast that could include restaurants, stores, offices, a hotel, a performance venue, a fitness center, townhouses and multifamily housing, parks and open spaces. Hundreds attend the meeting in the school gym, where team officials make a public ask for tax dollars to pay for site infrastructure, though don't say how much.
McCaskey makes a similar pitch as that of his grandfather, team founder George S. Halas, at an Arlington Heights Chamber of Commerce luncheon 47 years earlier to tout a possible relocation from Soldier Field to Arlington Park.
"I want to stress from the outset that we want to be good neighbors," said McCaskey, noting his father, Ed, and mother, Virginia, moved to Des Plaines in 1949, and family members have called Arlington Heights, Schaumburg, Palatine and Mount Prospect home. "We know the community well, and like you, we want what's best for the community."
Arlington Heights officials assail Americans for Prosperity's proposed ordinance as anti-business, while endorsing their use of tax increment financing districts and other financial incentives to support economic development initiatives. At the same time, the village board doesn't take a formal vote on it, saying the organization failed to secure enough valid signatures on its petition, under an antiquated and rarely, if ever, used part of municipal code.
"It is particularly upsetting to me when people from other towns come to our town and tell us how we should be doing things here in Arlington Heights," Hayes said.
Brian Costin, the interest group's deputy state director, argues the ordinance would reduce the "cronyism of picking winners and losers in the economy."
A lower-level village panel, the ordinance review committee, considers a proposed amendment to the Arlington Park overlay zoning district the village board created more than a year ago that would list a sports wagering facility as a possible use on the sprawling development site. The Bears have mentioned a sportsbook as part of their plans.
The board will discuss a draft predevelopment agreement that outlines a development road map laying out the village review process for the Bears' plans.
The plan commission will hold a public hearing on the proposed sportsbook zoning amendment.
The board will vote on the predevelopment agreement and zoning amendment.