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Football or powerball? Sizing up a Bears move to Arlington Heights

The racetrack site is vast, but redeveloping it requires more than a stadium as inspiration.

Horses gallop past the grandstand at Arlington International Racecourse in 2017.
The Chicago Bears have submitted a bid to buy the horse racing track site.
AP file

The Chicago Bears have again floated the idea of moving to Arlington Heights. The club has made an offer, competing with several others, for Arlington International Racecourse, a once premier venue whose business is withering and whose owner wants out.

We’ve seen this movie before with Chicago sports teams, including when the Bears in the 1970s talked about Arlington Heights and Mayor Richard J. Daley famously, but probably without basis, said they’d never call themselves the Chicago Bears if they followed through. The Cubs and White Sox also played suburban gambits, and they stayed put, too. Is that going to happen once more?

It’s very early in a process of negotiations, bluster and head fakes, but three questions come to mind.

Are the Bears serious?

The prudent answer is they are, until they aren’t. With Soldier Field needing improvements to keep up with the rest of the league, as the Sun-Times’ Mark Potash has explained, the Bears have incentives to consider a fresh start at the racetrack property.

The site covers 326 acres, slightly more than Six Flags Great America, and it’s in the middle of a wealthy suburban market where the team has a substantial fan base. It could provide all the necessary parking, and there’s even a Metra stop.

Industry consultant Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp, said based on conversations he’s had with the NFL, he believes the Bears are in earnest. Ganis, who said he has no role in this matter, said the Bears don’t need to purchase such a vast parcel. They could participate as tenants or as part of a group that the seller, Churchill Downs, puts together to develop the property.

Can the Bears anchor a large commercial development?

In considering so roomy a site, the Bears and the NFL may have in mind other recent stadium deals. Some have suggested a suburban baseball stadium built for the Atlanta Braves and surrounded by development as a template. But there’s a flaw in the logic. Major-league baseball teams bring in paying customers 81 dates per year. The Bears play about 10 dates, maybe a couple more with playoffs — we can dream, can’t we?

Allen Sanderson, an economics professor at the University of Chicago who has researched sports stadiums, has a maxim: “There are two things you should never put on a valuable piece of property: a cemetery and a football stadium. They’re closed all the time.”

His view reflects a consensus among economists that sports teams aren’t worth subsidizing because they don’t mean much to a local economy. It has to do with discretionary spending. The amount spent for tickets and concessions supports local jobs, but it otherwise would be spent at stores, restaurants, theaters, you name it.

Michael Leeds, an economics professor at Temple University, researched Chicago’s big five franchises — Bears, Bulls, Blackhawks, White Sox, Cubs — and in 2015 told public radio station KPCC they could all leave town and cost the economy less than 1%.

Sanderson said he believes the Cubs are the only team here with a measurable fiscal impact because they draw attendance from outside the Chicago area. He has another maxim: When stadium promoters estimate their economic benefits, move their decimal point one place to the left to get a truer picture.

A large commercial development in Arlington Heights will need more than the Bears as a trigger. “Something broader will work there whether or not the Bears are part of it,” Ganis said.

Arlington Heights officials have laid down basic rules for what gets built. The village in June approved a zoning overlay district covering the racetrack that prohibits uses it deems undesirable, such as car washes, adult businesses or warehouses.

Charles Witherington-Perkins, the village’s planning director, said the town needed to close loopholes and discourage piecemeal development. A stadium is allowed. Ganis said high-end retail could work there, even in the Amazon era. “Think of it as Oak Brook plus football,” he said.

Do the Bears have leverage?

Politically, yes, but it’s more than outweighed by money. A Chicago mayor doesn’t want to wear the jersey for a team move. Maybe a governor neither. But there are reasons the Bears sit with a generous lease on publicly owned land that can tap a go-to revenue source, hotel taxes, for upgrades. The Illinois Sports Facilities Authority is still using the hotel tax to pay off debt from the 2003 Soldier Field renovation.

A hotel tax wouldn’t amount to much in Arlington Heights. Witherington-Perkins said the village has not authorized a tax increment financing district for the racetrack, a common way to cover infrastructure improvements.

The cost of recent NFL stadiums has started at about $1 billion and spun far higher.

Look for the Bears to stay in Soldier Field and work out the expensive details of refurbishment. The city can open with this negotiating ploy: You get a retractable roof if you start beating Green Bay.