The Chicago Bears finalized their $197.2 million purchase of Arlington International Raceway from Churchill Downs Inc. Wednesday, another step in what could turn the horse racing track property into their new NFL home.
The Bears stunned many in September 2021 when they agreed to buy the 326-acre tract in the northwest Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights. Churchill Downs placed the property up for sale in February 2021 after opting to discontinue horse racing later that year at one of the country’s most well-regarded tracks. The company reportedly turned down bids from prospective buyers who wanted to continue racing at the venue with the iconic cantilevered roof.
Our open letter regarding the closing on Arlington Park property:
— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) February 15, 2023
Churchill Downs was one of the leading proponents of legislation that could have enabled a racino — granted in June 2019 when Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker signed a massive gaming expansion bill into law. CDI stunned many when it opted against doing so shortly after the bill was signed, citing anti-competitive tax rates. That, along with the company’s 2018 purchase of a majority stake in nearby Rivers Casino in Des Plaines — the highest revenue-generating casino in the state — created enmity with many stakeholders in Illinois horse racing.
The Bears have reportedly been at odds with the city of Chicago about making repairs and adding amenities to their current home at Soldier Field. The team made BetRivers — Rivers Casino’s mobile sports wagering tether — its official sportsbook partner in June 2021.
The 2019 gaming expansion bill also made Soldier Field eligible for a sports facility sports wagering license, but the Chicago Park District, which owns the stadium, has shown little inclination to expand the footprint. The Chicago Tribune reported the team could break its lease in 2026 for an estimated $84 million versus seeing it out to its full term ending in 2033.
Lightfoot still wants Bears in Chicago
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, in the midst of a challenging reelection campaign that includes a nine-way runoff Feb. 28, repeated her preference to have the Bears remain at Soldier Field. Last month, the city and developer Bob Dunn unveiled an ambitious $2.2 billion plan to remodel the stadium, which included putting a dome on the top and making it the cornerstone of a new commercial zone.
NEWS: “Today’s news about the closure of the Bears’ option in Arlington Heights has been anticipated for some time. Nonetheless, all of us die-hard Bears fans, @chicagosmayor included, know and believe that the Chicago Bears should remain in Chicago. pic.twitter.com/7Z7Rt6aN8Q
— Ryan Johnson (@Ryan_Johnson) February 15, 2023
Dunn is also the architect of ONE Central, a multimodal transportation hub that was part of the pitch Hard Rock made to the city in its failed bid for the downtown casino license that is also integral to the Soldier Field revamp and expansion.
Bally’s, which beat out both Hard Rock and Rush Street Gaming — which operates Rivers Casino — with its $1.7 billion proposal to build a casino in the River West neighborhood of Chicago, submitted its application for the license to the Illinois Gaming Board last August. The state agency is still reviewing the application, but earlier this month it approved two suppliers licenses to entities that would operate its temporary casino at Medinah Temple in nearby River North the casino license is awarded.
Potential candidate for third racino license?
The 2019 gaming expansion bill created three racino licenses for the state with the expectation that Churchill Downs, Hawthorne Race Course, and Fairmount Park would all apply. Hawthorne and Fairmount Park did so, with both being deemed preliminary suitable by the Illinois Gaming Board in 2020. Hawthorne is much further along in its plans to bring its racino to life in the South Side suburb of Stickney than Fairmount Park is on the western side of the state near the Missouri border.
Churchill’s withdrawal left the third racino license available. A bill recently filed by state Sen. Patrick Joyce, SB 1732, raises the possibility there is an interested party in the suburban Chicago area near Hawthorne.
Joyce’s bill is an amendment to the 1975 Horse Racing Act. It proposes a June 29 sunset date for the clause in which additional organization licenses “issued by the Illinois Racing Board for standardbred racing to a racetrack located in specified townships of Cook County, shall not be issued within a 35-mile radius of another organization license issued by the Board, unless the person having operating control of such racetrack has given written consent to the organization licensee application, which consent must be filed with the Board at or prior to the time application is made.”
Photo: Getty Images