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Bears move toward new stadium by buying Arlington Park property for $197M

The team announced its Purchase and Sale Agreement with Churchill Downs today, moving it closer to building a new stadium in the northwest suburbs.

Arlington Park held its final horse race Saturday and now is in the process of being purchased by the Bears.
Arlington Park held its final horse race Saturday and now is in the process of being purchased by the Bears.
2010 AP file photo

The Bears announced Wednesday morning they have agreed to purchase the Arlington Park property in Arlington Heights, but stopped short of promising to build a new stadium there.

The purchase will take time to complete, similar to closing on a house, but Churchill Downs selected the Bears’ bid and is moving toward finalizing the sale.

“[It’s] the critical next step in continuing our exploration of the property and its potential,” team president Ted Phillips said in a statement. “Much work remains to be completed, including working closely with the Village of Arlington Heights and surrounding communities, before we can close on this transaction.

“Our goal is to chart a path forward that allows our team to thrive on the field, Chicagoland to prosper from this endeavor and the Bears organization to be ensured a strong future. We will never stop working toward delivering Bears fans the very best experience.”

Through a spokesperson, Phillips and chairman George McCaskey declined the Sun-Times’ interview requests.

Churchill Downs called it “an extraordinarily competitive bid process” and announced the sale price of $197.2 million. It projected the closing process to take until the end of 2022 or last into the beginning of 2023. The Bears would still need approval from the Village of Arlington Heights to build a stadium, but it doesn’t sound like that will be a problem.

“I could not be more excited,” mayor Tom Hayes said. “My goal for any redevelopment has always been to put this prime piece of real estate to its highest and best use, and I can’t think of a higher and better use than this one.

“The Village is committed to working with the Bears organization and all stakeholders to explore this opportunity for Arlington Heights and the northwest suburban region.”

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office said Tuesday night the Bears informed her that they signed a purchase agreement to buy the 326-acre property, signaling their interest in leaving Soldier Field.

Lightfoot said in a statement, “We remain committed to continuing to work to keep the team in Chicago and have advised the Bears that we remain open to discussions,” then touted other revenue streams for Soldier Field — the MLS’ Chicago Fire began play there this season and Notre Dame just played Wisconsin there on Saturday.

She indicated on 670 The Score on Wednesday that there has been little, if any, constructive dialogue between the Bears and the city lately.

“They’ve actually got to come to us and tell us what they want,” she said. “We have been open to a conversation. They have not.”

One potential sticking point is the Chicago Park District’s resistance to the Bears setting up sports gambling venues in Soldier Field. WBEZ reported the impasse last week and published an email from Phillips accusing the city of refusing “to engage in good faith discussions about an opportunity that generates revenue for the CPD while leveraging the Chicago Bears brand.”

When the Bears bid on the property in June, they said they planned to “further evaluate the property and its potential” if it was accepted. They will begin that process now, and can still negotiate with the city to remain on the lakefront.

Lightfoot said in June the Bears were “locked into a lease” at Soldier Field through 2033. She changed her tone in an interview with the Sun-Times earlier this month, saying she was willing to discuss with the Bears ways to keep them downtown.

The Bears have played at Soldier Field since 1971, and have flirted with potential suburban stadium sites ever since. The Bears’ talks with Arlington Heights, though, officially moved past the flirting stage Wednesday.

Once the purchase is finalized, the next step would be making plans to build a new stadium that would likely cost close to $2 billion and take at least two years to build once ground is broken. The Bears have long admired the Vikings’ U.S. Bank Stadium as a model for a potential new stadium, sources said.

That stadium is fully enclosed — no retractable roof — but lets in a lot of natural light because of its glass roof and walls. It has a maximum football capacity of 73,000, cost $1.1 billion to build and opened in 2016.

Building a new stadium would virtually guarantee the Bears of hosting a Super Bowl and put them in the mix to host major events like the College Football Playoffs, an annual bowl game, the Big Ten championship, the NCAA tournament, political conventions and massive concerts.

Additionally, the Bears are one of the major professional sports teams that do not own the stadium in which they play. Because the city owns Soldier Field, the organization is limited in what it can build or renovate on the property. For example, if the Bears wanted to put a team shop and museum on the property, they would have to negotiate that with the city.

While the Bears’ initial interest in the property in Arlington Heights could have been viewed as a negotiating tactic with Chicago, agreeing to purchase the land is a much more serious step toward moving into a new stadium.