No doubt losing Arlington Park is a sad day for horse racing fans and historians. The historic horse racing facility has been operating since 1927 and rose from ashes to continue the Arlington Million without interruption as the “Miracle Million” in 1985.
Arlington Park may not have the most exotic setting for a track – it rises in the northwest suburbs of Chicago – but there isn’t a track in the country to compare with its spectacular ambiance, architectural design, cleanliness and customer service.
In 1983, Richard Duchossois and partners bought Arlington Park. Two years later, in the early morning hours of July 31, 1985, Mr. D’s Palace, dilapidated as it was, went up in flames. The fire completely destroyed the grandstand when the wind shifted from the north-northeast and picked up speed during the fire, which helped flames rapidly find the remainder of the grandstand for fuel. Ashes landed as far away as Schaumburg.
By August 1985, the ruins were cleared and a temporary tent city was built so that the Arlington Million “The Miracle Million” could continue without skipping a beat. The racetrack fully reopened with a beautiful grandstand in 1989 as Arlington International Racecourse.
Churchill Downs, Inc. purchased the racetrack in 2000. In 2001, Arlington reopened as Arlington Park but was re-named Arlington International Racecourse in 2013. Since then, the business has struggled with non-racing gambling competition and strict state permission to offer non-racing gambling at the horse racing facility. Warnings of the racetrack’s closure have now come true.
While many leaders and citizens are shocked at the end of the run at Arlington Park for horse racing and the silencing of the call to post, you can almost hear the energy vibrating at the 326 acres bounded by Euclid Avenue, Wilke Road, Route 53 and Northwest Highway and the Metra UPNW line.
To say the property is longstanding prime real estate is an understatement.
Flashback to 1987 when Patrick Daly, a gubernatorial appointee to the McCormick Place board, approached the Bears about a 42-acre site at 1300 East Northwest Highway in Palatine, across the street and just to the north of Arlington Park. The land was home to a McDade & Co. retail catalogue showroom store, not the current USPS facility. McDade’s was undergoing involuntary bankruptcy, and sale of the land was proposed to combine with Arlington Park. However, when the Arlington Park grandstand was destroyed in 1985, the Chicago Bears were on their way to a winning season and claiming the Super Bowl XX NFL Championship on January 26, 1986. Chicago Bears President Michael McCaskey approached Richard Duchossois about the possibility of including a new NFL stadium as part of redevelopment of the Arlington Park property. The proposal didn’t materialize.
Flashback to the early 1970s when George Halas was threatening to move the Chicago Bears out of Chicago while Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley was sluggish responding to the Chicago Bears yearning for a new stadium. Arlington Park ranked high on the list for a new Chicago Bears stadium because of excellent transportation access from Route 53 and the C&NW commuter line. Mayor Daley threatened to sue to prevent the team from using “Chicago” in the team’s name. George Halas wasn’t satisfied with the Soldier Field venue all the way back to the early 1970s, but a brand new stadium was never built — in the City of Chicago or the suburbs.
Amazingly, the Chicago Bears — one of only two original franchises of the NFL (the Arizona Cardinals is the other team) — has never had a modern stadium that it can call its very own. From early Chicago Bears years, the Chicago Cubs shared Wrigley Field with the Chicago Bears through the 1970 season, and since then the Chicago Bears have leased Soldier Field from the Chicago Park District. The current lease expires following the final game of the 2033 NFL season. Soldier Field was renovated from 2002 to 2003, and officially re-opened on September 29, 2003.
No bonafide interest in a Chicago Bears relocation is known, but there are many downsides to Soldier Field that could lead to assumptions that the Chicago Bears could have a renewed interest in Arlington Park. Number 1 is that the capacity of 61,500 at Soldier Field is too small to ever host an NFL Super Bowl. The lower stadium capacity — the NFL’s smallest stadium capacity actually — is also possibly detrimental going forward with social distancing requirements that may be established when NFL games are allowed to regain in-stadium attendance. In other words, economically the Chicago Bears might need a higher-capacity and more spacious stadium to absorb the social distancing requirements of the future.
Besides the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, a change in the socio-political and economic environment of the City of Chicago could be a factor. The interruptions of civil unrest in Chicago and the resulting damaged local economy could also be a motivation to move out of the City of Chicago, and develop an entirely new venue and experience for the Chicago Bears. The fresh symbiotic development opportunities on 326 acres in Arlington Heights surrounding a new stadium are plentiful.
Another disadvantage of Soldier Field is the location on the lakefront. The location features a beautiful skyline backdrop setting, but all transportation must come from the west, which limits convenience and accessibility. The acreage near Soldier Field bounded by McFetridge Drive, the Burnham Harbor shore, 18th Drive (to the south), and Lake Shore Drive is only about 80 acres. At Arlington Park, a Metra station already exists without separation by any highways or expressways, and the ownership of Arlington Park property features 326 acres — four times the property opportunity around Soldier Field, which is controlled by the Chicago Park District.
In the summer of 2020, rumors of a Chicago Bears interest in Arlington Park were revived in a few media sources. Writing for Sports Illustrated, Gene Chamberlain, however, wrote that the trouble with the idea of moving the Bears to Arlington Heights is that the NFL club is “locked into Soldier Field with a lease that runs through 2033, and when all is said and done the total rental cost is only $6.3 million annually. They’re not tossing out this kind of a sweet deal, and it seems unlikely the McCaskey family would like to eat the $6.3 million a year to move somewhere else.” Chamberlain’s words might seem a little short on foresight at this point. There are other power play deals that could wash out that sweet $6.3 million annual lease deal into irrelevance. Additionally, by the time the property is sold and the racetrack grandstand is demolished, and a new stadium is built; would probably be at least five years. An NFL team probably wouldn’t be ready to play at Arlington Park until 2026 or 2027. That’s only six or seven years left on the lease expiring in 2033.
COVID-19 pandemic-caused cash-strapped suburbs, namely Arlington Heights, aren’t likely to be able to offer much of a financial incentive, but Churchill Downs Inc. (CDI) which is majority owner of Rivers Casino might see a financial advantage of an NFL stadium at Arlington Park for their Sports Betting industry. Who knows what conversations might be happening between power players — the NFL, CDI, Chicago Bears, stadium naming rights suitors, and the Village of Arlington Heights.
Naming rights for the stadium may play an important factor. Amazon secured the naming rights to Seattle’s new downtown arena in June 2020, but the 18,100-seat arena will be renamed to “Climate Pledge Arena” and it will house a new NHL team, as well as the Women’s National Basketball Association’s Seattle Storm. Could Amazon be interested in naming rights for a zero-carbon or near zero-carbon NFL stadium in the Midwest — Arlington’s Amazon Stadium or Chicago Bears Amazon Stadium? How about the Chicago Bears Netflix Stadium? Or Chicago Bears Apple Stadium? The Chicago Bears Clorox Stadium?
Could the NFL be interested in encouraging the design and establishment of a revolutionary new stadium that is designed with technology to maximize safety and operations to counter the COVID-19 pandemic or any future pandemic? A few short years after the NFL’s 100 year anniversary, what kind of public relations bonanza would be achieved with one of the first existing NFL franchise clubs finally getting its very own home stadium.
SoFi Stadium is a stadium and entertainment complex in Inglewood, California, located at the former site of the Hollywood Park Racetrack 3 miles from LAX Airport.
SoFi Stadium opened in September 2020, and is home for two NFL teams — the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Chargers. It also serves as the home of the LA Bowl. SoFi Stadium is scheduled to host Super Bowl LVI in February 2022.
However, this Arlington Park property sales opportunity, which is the best opportunity yet, may once again slip away from the Chicago Bears. As Sport Illustrated writer Gene Chamberlain speculated in June 2020, another NFL franchise could move in to Chicagoland, or a newly-formed football league could build a stadium at Arlington Park. Chicago Bills? Chicago Bengals? The Los Angeles metropolitan area has two NFL teams (the Los Angeles Chargers and the Los Angeles Rams) … anybody’s guess … it’s possible in Chicagoland. Then again, maybe Arlington Park could be home to two NFL teams — the Chicago Bears and another relocated NFL team.
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