Three-and-a-half months after putting in a bid to buy the Arlington International Racecourse property, the Bears have signed a purchase agreement for the 326-acre plot.
It’s the latest — but not final — step toward moving the team from Soldier Field to the site, located 6 miles north of the Northwest Tollway, which held its last race Saturday.
The Bears said in June that they were among the groups to put in a bid to purchase the property. If the franchise’s bid was accepted, the team said then, it would be able to “further evaluate the property and its potential.” That is the case now, though the team could still negotiate with the city to remain on the lakefront.
Churchill Downs Inc. said Wednesday morning it agreed to sell the property to the Bears for $197.2 million. The sale isn’t expected to close until late 2022 or early 2023.
The team told Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot about the purchase agreement Tuesday night.
“We are not surprised by this move,” Lightfoot said in a statement after The Athletic reported the purchase agreement. “We remain committed to continuing to work to keep the team in Chicago and have advised the Bears that we remain open to discussions.”
The Bears did not return a request for comment late Tuesday. Bears Chairman George McCaskey has not spoken publicly since the team put in the bid, forgoing his annual season-opening news conference.
Lightfoot said in June the Bears were “locked into a lease” at Soldier Field through 2033. She said the Arlington Heights venture was “clearly a negotiating tactic the Bears have used before,” and she was right — the Bears had flirted with suburbs regularly since they moved into Soldier Field 50 years ago. Their first conversation with Arlington Heights came in 1971, the year they first played at Soldier Field.
Her tone changed earlier this month, when Lightfoot told the Sun-Times’ editorial board that she was open to negotiating with the team. She said she was putting together a small team to talk to the Bears.
“I’m willing to sit down with the Bears at any time,” she said. “But it takes two to tango. They’ve got to articulate to me and my team a specific set of asks, and we have not gotten that yet from them.”
Any dramatic changes to Soldier Field, though, would be difficult to pull off, experts said.
The Chicago Park District owns Soldier Field. In 2002, it remodeled the stadium for $587 million. With seating for 62,000 fans, though, it is the second-smallest stadium in the NFL. Without a roof, it will never host a Super Bowl.
Lightfoot is a season ticket holder.
“I am a Bears fan,” she told the Sun-Times earlier this month. “I want the Bears to stay in the city of Chicago. And we are willing to work with them to try to address their concerns. But I’ve got to do it in a way that is fiscally prudent and doesn’t preclude other uses in that stadium ...
“We are evaluating ways in which we can enhance the fan experience at Soldier Field . . . I know that it can be better. I’ve been to other stadiums across the country where the fan experience is far superior to what we have at Soldier Field.”
Contributing: Mitchell Armentrout