When we first moved to Arlington Heights, 23 1/2 years ago, we lived a mere three blocks away from Arlington Park, the race track. In fact, the neighborhood itself was called Arlington Park, and was platted at the same time as the racetrack, which is just a few years shy of its 100th birthday. (No houses were actually built until after the war, as only speculators bought lots, but that’s your obscure trivia for the day.) Shortly after we moved in, the racetrack shut down for two years — Wikipedia states, unfootnoted, this was “due to contract disputes,” but the disputes were not with some sort of union but with the state, as management had said they simply couldn’t run the track at a profit, and the state eventually promised that some cash from casino profits would go to enhanced purses — or maybe that happened later; I’m not sure. In any case, there were a few concerts held there in the meantime, and there was talk of auto racing or other uses for the property before racing restarted.
Now Churchill Downs, the owner, has announced they are selling the track. There were suggestions initially that this was just a bargaining position, an attempt to get the state to reduce its taxes, and there were likewise hopes that other investors could purchase the track and keep the tradition of racing alive. Perhaps it is still possible to make a profit, in terms of operating costs, at the racetrack, but, presumably, such a group of investors wouldn’t be able to top bids of those hoping to put the 350 acre property to more lucrative uses. Is this a matter of the state unjustly making racetracks unprofitable by expanding casino gambling excessively? Is this, rather, a matter of the state simply relenting on its prior restrictions on gambling? Or were the state’s taxes on the racetrack indeed unreasonably high and the difference between profitability and loss, in an era when the number of people who visit the racetrack and the sums of money they spend out of enjoyment of that form of entertainment isn’t supplemented by people who simply want to gamble in any fashion available? I don’t really know, but in any case, there was no discussion of whether regulations needed re-writing, and we seem to be past that point.
Which brings us to the Bears, who have put out a statement that they have made a bid on the racetrack. Tom Hayes, the mayor of Arlington Heights, thinks it’s dandy. Mayor Lightfoot, not so much. Even a year ago, a columnist at Sports Illustrated addressed the question, concluding that the owners, the McCaskeys, didn’t have the deep pockets necessary to fund a new stadium so would stay with the low-cost deal with Chicago, and the consensus, at least of many people who claim to know what they’re talking about, is that the Bears are just using this threat to push the city for more enhancements to the stadium.
But let’s consider the question: what if they are serious?
On the local Facebook pages, some of my fellow Arlington Heights-ians are getting excited about the prospect. They imagine it would be an engine of prosperity, and bring us a magnificent new entertainment showpiece — but really? 8 games a year and a few concerts are not going to provide enough predictable revenue for restaurants, hotels, etc. It doesn’t make sense. To be sure, my fellow Arlington Heights-ians have plenty of other fantasies as well, dreaming of a nature preserve or a botanic garden or a museum, or other uses that require that some billionaire be interested in buying the property just to fritter away money rather than to make a profit off of the investment, but none of this is realistic.
At the same time, well, Soldier Field, or at least its shell, has a 100 year old-ish history, but the Bears have only played there since 1971. This is not some unbreakable bond. Is an infrequently-used stadium surrounded by a sea of parking lots really the best use for Chicago’s lakefront? If it isn’t, Arlington Park is probably as practical a place to locate a new stadium as any, with its proximity to Route 53 and the Metra station — so, given the principle that a city has no business getting in the way of a business transaction if it doesn’t do harm to the community, I don’t see what grounds Mayor Hayes and the city would have for blocking the transaction.
But on the third hand — again bearing in mind that the rebuild from 2002 was $600 million funded by the city, rationalized as money to be paid back by out-of-towners through hotel taxes and the like — I am tremendously leery that the mayor and the trustees will be able to resist the lure of fame, the promise of something that puts Arlington Heights on the map, some consultants’ calculation of enormous sums of money to come in the future, and rationalize tax breaks, bonds the city would be on the hook for, tax hikes crafted in a way that’s meant to hit only out-of-towners (but it never really does), and so on. After all, consider what happened to Bridgeview, which thought it would create a moneymaker by building a stadium for the Chicago Fire soccer team at a cost of $100 million; instead, residents’ tax bills had tripled, as of 2012 reporting, with the expectation that the costs would grow even more.
And it’s easy to say, “oh, Arlington Heights would never be so foolish,” and, indeed, Bridgeview’s decision was as much about corruption as foolishness; as the Trib reported, “Once Bridgeview started borrowing the cash, millions flowed to those who contribute to political funds controlled by town leaders.” Surely Arlington Heights isn’t corrupt!
But are we really so protected from this sort of bad decision-making? If the Bears are serious, and if they have made an offer to Churchill Downs that beats their alternatives, and if the Bears condition that offer on tax breaks designed in such a way to allow promoters to claim they “pay for themselves,” then Hayes and the trustees may find it hard to resist the temptation of that national name recognition, especially in their pursuit of something “special” rather than a generic mixed-use development or, heaven forfend, a commercial or (light) industrial use instead.
Which means I’d just as soon not take that chance.