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Bears on Arlington Heights stadium site: ‘There’s nothing else like it in Chicagoland’

Escrow on the purchase the Bears made from Churchill Downs won’t close until the end of this year or the first quarter of 2023.

Arlington Park Exterior Views
The Bears are in escrow to buy 326 acres in Arlington Heights.
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The Bears tried Monday to describe their $197.2 million pending purchase of stadium land in Arlington Heights as some sort of happy accident.

Chairman George McCaskey and president/CEO Ted Phillips went out of their way to say they didn’t set out to pursue the 326-acre former racetrack site until they were contacted by a selling agent.

But make no mistake: The Bears have grand plans for the site if and when the sale goes through. McCaskey and Phillips made that clear in their first public comments about the property since they agreed to buy it in September — or since they announced they intended to bid on it in June. In fact, neither McCaskey nor Phillips had spoken with reporters in almost a year.

‘‘There’s nothing else like it in Chicagoland,’’ said Phillips, who is in charge of the project. ‘‘So the opportunities — you know, we haven’t even begun to envision what it could be. But we’re hopeful, if we close, that we’ll be moving forward with turning it into a wonderful destination site.

‘‘Again, the timing of it we don’t know because we haven’t even closed on the land. [If] we don’t close on the land, then all that vision won’t come to fruition. But we’re excited it could be an entertainment destination with multiple facets to it that I think could really help put Arlington Heights on the map as a destination spot.’’

That likely includes more than a stadium. It might be an entertainment district with restaurants, bars and a hotel property.

Escrow on the purchase the Bears made from Churchill Downs won’t close until the end of this year or even the first quarter of 2023. Citing that timeline, McCaskey was more reserved than Phillips when asked about what might be a franchise-altering decision: leaving Soldier Field, the Bears’ home since 1971, to build a stadium in the northwest suburbs.

‘‘On a property of this size, that time between under contract and closing is vastly expanded,’’ McCaskey said. ‘‘So there’s a lot of due diligence that needs to be performed before we can close.’’

Even as the Bears hire staffers and vendors to help them study the Arlington Heights site, McCaskey said the team was ‘‘happy to engage’’ with the city and the Chicago Park District ‘‘about present operations at Soldier Field.’’ The stadium was remodeled in 2002 for $587 million, but it lacks the large capacity and luxury amenities of the NFL’s newer stadiums. Because the Bears don’t own the stadium — the Chicago Park District does — they’re limited in what they can do (and how much money they can make) on the lakefront.

Asked about the last time the Bears spoke with city officials, McCaskey said it was ‘‘a few weeks ago.’’

The Bears have a lease at Soldier Field through 2033, though they could pay to leave sooner. Staying on the lakefront seems unlikely, however. Phillips said the Bears’ ‘‘focus for long-term development is exclusively on that property at Arlington Heights.’’

In one breath, McCaskey called the property six miles north of the Northwest Tollway ‘‘an outstanding, long-term proposition with high potential for the Bears.’’ In another, he stressed that any talk about building a stadium there would have to wait.

‘‘All we’re doing is exploring the property’s potential,’’ he said. ‘‘We don’t even own the property yet. And any questions beyond that would be premature at this point.’’