‘We want to be good neighbors:’ Bears hold forum to discuss Arlington Park redevelopment plan

Chicago Bears officials host a community meeting to discuss their potential move to Arlington Heights on Thursday, September 8, 2022 at Hersey High School in Arlington Heights.

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS – Many clad in blue and orange, hundreds of residents from Arlington Heights and other Northwest suburbs came to the John Hersey High School gymnasium Thursday to get their first look at plans for the Chicago Bears’ redevelopment at Arlington Park.

They came to meet their potential new neighbors in town: top brass from the NFL’s charter franchise, led by team Chairman George McCaskey and President/CEO Ted Phillips.

It was just 47 years ago when McCaskey’s grandfather, team founder George S. Halas, came to an Arlington Heights Chamber of Commerce luncheon to tout his team’s possible relocation from Soldier Field to Arlington Park.

On Thursday night, McCaskey made a similar pitch.

“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.”

“We are in very beginning of a process to explore what might be possible at the Arlington Park site,” he continued. “There are still many unknowns, including whether we will be able to close on the property, and if we do, whether we will develop it, and if we do, whether that development will include a stadium. We have a long way to go. There will be ebbs and flows with progress and setbacks.”

But, McCaskey declared, “we think development of the site including a stadium is a win for Bears fans, the village of Arlington Heights, the surrounding communities and the state of Illinois.”

McCaskey, accompanied by other team leadership and their hired consulting architects and engineers, presented conceptual plans for a transit-oriented, mixed-use and entertainment district anchored by a domed stadium on the 326-acre site of the former thoroughbred racetrack. At an estimated $5 billion cost, it would be one of the largest development projects in Illinois history.

Attendees, sitting on foldable chairs on the gym floor, watched a slide presentation on two large screens as team officials and their consultants presented their vision for the old racetrack property. The two-hour meeting concluded with a question-and-answer session; the general public wrote questions on cards that were read aloud by Bears radio play-by-play announcer Jeff Joniak.

The community meeting organized by the Bears came two days after the club’s initial release of two conceptual renderings and a site plan of the proposed redevelopment. Those renderings came with an open letter vowing not to ask for tax dollars, at least for the stadium portion of the project.

McCaskey and Phillips on Thursday repeated that pledge but again left open the door to seeking public funding for the rest of the project.

Chicago Bears Chairman George H. McCaskey watches President Ted Phillips speak as officials host a community meeting to discuss their potential move to Arlington Heights on Thursday, September 8, 2022 at Hersey High School in Arlington Heights.

“We will need help,” McCaskey said. “There are broad, long-term public benefits of this project, and we look forward to partnering with various governmental bodies to secure additional funding and assistance needed to support development of the remainder of the site. How much or what form this will take we do not know at this time. But we do know that without infrastructure support and property tax certainty, the project as described to you tonight will not be able to move forward.”

Three hours before the meeting, Brian Costin, deputy state director of Americans for Prosperity Illinois, released a statement opposing the use of tax dollars for any part of the project.

“We are elated to hear the Chicago Bears can build a ‘best-in-class enclosed stadium’ at Arlington Park without taxpayer subsidies. We should take that statement as a promise to the residents and taxpayers of Arlington Heights and Illinois,” Costin wrote. “However, if the Bears are telling the truth about not being able to develop the rest of the park without massive taxpayer subsidies, then it’s a clear sign they shouldn’t.”

Costin’s conservative political advocacy group -- its state chapter offices are in the shadow of Arlington Park in Rolling Meadows -- submitted a petition of some 650 signatures to the Arlington Heights village clerk on Tuesday that seeks village board approval of a so-called anti-corporate welfare ordinance. The measure, which would bar the municipality from “offering or extending any financial incentive to any business or corporation to operate in the village,” could be formally considered by trustees on Sept. 19.

Besides a multipurpose entertainment district anchored by an enclosed stadium on the 120-acre northwest portion of the Arlington Park property, the Bears’ plans call for an adjoining commercial/retail and housing district on the 206 acres to the southeast that could include restaurants, offices, a hotel, performance venue, fitness center, townhouses and multifamily housing, parks and open spaces.

The team’s pending $197.2 million purchase of the racetrack from Churchill Downs Inc. is scheduled to close later this year or early next.

While Thursday’s meeting was conducted by the Bears, Arlington Heights officials announced their regularly scheduled village board committee of the whole meeting on Monday would include a discussion of the Bears’ preliminary plans but that no decisions would be made. The public meeting is set for 7 p.m. at the Forest View Educational Center theater, 2121 S. Goebbert Road.