In 1975, Chicago Bears founder George S. Halas made his first pitch to relocate his team from Soldier Field to Arlington Park.
Fast forward 46 years to Thursday afternoon, when a similar overture was made by the team’s current president and CEO to Mayor Tom Hayes.
“I didn’t know until Ted Phillips called me this afternoon,” Hayes said of the NFL franchise’s bombshell announcement that it’s making an offer to buy the 326-acre racetrack property.
“He called me about 1 p.m. and advised they submitted a bid, and I said I appreciated the courtesy call,” Hayes said. “We had hoped it would be a possibility. It’s a very exciting opportunity and I’m glad to see it came to fruition, but there’s a long way to go in terms of evaluating proposals.”
A Bears move to Arlington Heights has long been a source of speculation since “Papa Bear” Halas’ original appearance at an Arlington Heights Chamber of Commerce luncheon in August 1975. The rumor mill has continued to churn in the decades since, after Halas’ grandson Michael McCaskey raised the possibility of moving to Arlington Park again in 1985, among other suburban sites he explored later in the 1990s.
Fuel was added to the speculation in April, when a team spokesman didn’t deny the Bears’ interest when asked about a possible Arlington Park move.
Then came Thursday’s brief statement from Phillips.
“It’s our obligation to explore every possible option to ensure we’re doing what’s best for our organization and its future,” Phillips said in the statement. “If selected, this step allows us to further evaluate the property and its potential.”
The Bears’ confirmation came nearly 48 hours after a 5 p.m. Tuesday deadline for interested parties to submit initial plans and offers to track owner Churchill Downs Inc.
Officials at the Louisville, Kentucky-based corporation said Tuesday their real estate firm received “strong proposals from numerous parties” for redevelopment of the iconic 94-year-old racetrack. They declined to comment further after the Bears announcement Thursday.
Hayes said his brief phone call with Phillips marked the first formal notification that the team was submitting a proposal to Churchill’s Chicago-based real estate broker, CBRE.
Just hours before the broker’s deadline at the close of business Tuesday, Hayes said he was “anxiously awaiting” a possible offer from the Bears. He previously directed his staff to send the Bears’ front office a letter saying they’d be happy to explore the possibility of a move to Arlington Park with the team.
On Thursday, Hayes said he welcomed the franchise’s interest in Arlington Park and is glad its ownership sees the “tremendous potential” of the site at Euclid and Wilke roads, near both a Metra stop and Route 53.
“Mr. Phillips indicated he would look forward to working with us if they were the successful bidder to make this a reality,” Hayes said. “It’s just a long way to go in terms of getting to that first step. I indicated we’d be a big part of the process going forward.”
At Chicago’s City Hall, things weren’t nearly as cordial.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot called the NFL franchise’s announcement a “negotiating tactic that the Bears have used before.”
The team’s front office is in the midst of discussions with city officials over improvements at Soldier Field. The team has a lease at the park district-owned lakefront stadium until 2033.
A spokeswoman for Gov. J.B. Pritzker didn’t respond to a request for comment Thursday and hasn’t responded to previous questions about the future of Arlington Park.
Hayes hasn’t yet talked with city or state leaders about the Bears’ possible move to the suburbs; it would have been premature before Thursday, he said.
During his call with Phillips, Hayes said there was no discussion about specifics of the Bears’ plan: whether they envision an open-air or domed stadium, what other amenities might be planned for the expansive site, and if any of it would rely on taxpayer support.
The mayor said he knows of only the two proposals, both of which have been announced publicly: that of the Bears, and a group led by former Arlington Park President Roy Arnold.
Arnold, of Endeavor Properties LLC, is working with prominent Chicago developer Sterling Bay, Ocean Atlantic and GSP Development on a plan to keep the existing track and grandstand for live horse racing, while adding a mid-size arena suitable to host a minor league hockey team, a 60-acre entertainment district, a 300-unit housing development and a 60-acre industrial space.
Before the Churchill deadline, village officials met with Arnold’s consortium and another group that wants to preserve horse racing, as well as others proposing mixed-use developments. As a result of those discussions, Hayes said he anticipated there would be fewer than 10 redevelopment proposals.
But CBRE told him there were “many, many” proposals received, so it’s possible there may be plans village leaders don’t yet know about.
Hayes said the village staff will be working with CBRE to review the proposals in the coming months. After the last scheduled race at the track under Churchill ownership Sept. 25, Hayes doesn’t think the property would remain vacant for long.
“I think there’s been enough interest as you’ve already seen from two major high-quality redevelopment groups: the Bears, and a well-financed horse racing group. And I understand there’s strong interest by others,” Hayes said. “I think there’s enough momentum that’s been created that there will be a successful bidder identified in the next couple of months, and I’d anticipate things would move forward after that.”