The Chicago Bears are making progress toward completing their purchase of Arlington International Racecourse in Arlington Heights, officials say, with the clock ticking toward a deadline to seal the deal in 2023.
Village documents obtained by the Tribune show the highest levels of the team’s administration, including Chairman George McCaskey, have been involved in meetings to make the purchase and subsequent construction of a new football stadium happen. The documents showed that the team deposited $125,000 with the village for studies of the stadium proposal, and they also included a former baseball executive’s proposal to add a minor league baseball complex to the site.
In September 2021, the team announced it had signed a purchase agreement to buy the property from Churchill Downs Inc. for $197 million, pending final approvals by both parties. Churchill Downs Inc. subsequently closed the famed racetrack. The Bears would have to break their lease at Soldier Field to build a new stadium at Arlington.
The new baseball fields were proposed by William Larsen, former general manager of the Kane County Cougars minor league team. In an email in February to Mayor Tom Hayes, Larsen wrote that the baseball fields would host four to six teams of undrafted college players.
Larsen said he had no financial or other formal backing for the proposal, and hadn’t heard back from the Bears, but was told by scouts and others in professional baseball that there is a need for undrafted players to chase their dreams of playing professionally.
“I might as well find out if they’re interested,” he said. “I knew it had a lot of potential.”
He estimated 10 to 15 acres would be needed for the project on the 326-acre site, but did not cite any financing or backing for the deal.
He guessed that the games could draw about 450,000 fans a year.
The village forwarded the email to the Bears. Village officials would encourage the team to consider the idea, Hayes said, but it’s up to team officials to decide what to do with the site, within the village’s parameters. Meanwhile, village and team officials have continued meeting to discuss plans for the site, he said.
Brandon Faber, Bears vice president of communications, didn’t comment on the baseball proposal, but said the team is still trying to see if the site will work for a football stadium.
“We continue to work through the due diligence process on the Arlington Park property with our accomplished team of land use experts,” Faber said. “While significant progress has been made, we still must do extensive work and analysis to determine the viability of developing the site. Our expectation for a decision on whether we can purchase the property remains late 2022 or early 2023.”
The village’s first recorded meeting with Bears representatives was Aug. 26, 2021, followed by meetings in October, February, March, April and June. Bears officials also agreed to attend training sessions this year on stadium security.
The October meeting at the village included McCaskey, Bears President and CEO Ted Phillips, and team attorney Cliff Stein, among others, village emails showed. Mayor Hayes, Village Manager Randy Recklaus and Director of Planning and Development Charles Perkins, among others, attended for the village.
Hayes wouldn’t talk about specifics of the discussions, but said progress was speeding up due to the Bears’ deadline to finalize the deal by mid-2023.
He confirmed that due to the size of the site, its plan likely would include mixed-use development featuring residential, commercial, retail and entertainment.
“Things are moving quicker than they had been, as a result of the timeline the Bears are working under,” Hayes said. ”We have been working together with the team to meet their needs and our needs, and things are progressing. We’re doing all we can to make this a reality.”
The Bears also deposited $125,000 with the village to pay for necessary consultant studies that the village would conduct regarding the proposal, Recklaus said.
Such payments are not uncommon for projects that may require the hiring of a consultant for studies of traffic, security, crowd control or other issues, Recklaus said. A similar arrangement took place when studies were conducted before the former Sheraton Hotel near Arlington Park became apartments known as Arlington Downs. The village hasn’t conducted any such studies for the Bears yet.
In March, the team announced it had hired Manica Architecture, which designed the Las Vegas Raiders’ new stadium. The team also hired stadium development manager CAA Icon and real estate investment firm Jones Lang LaSalle to work on the proposal.