Just days after a farewell fireworks display marked the end of a storied era of thoroughbred horse racing in Arlington Heights, residents woke up Wednesday to the news that the Chicago Bears in a few years could be making the northwest suburb their home.
The Bears have signed a purchase agreement for Arlington International Racecourse, the near-century-old facility that held what likely were its final races last Saturday.
The move by the Bears is not a done deal. And some in the village might not want to get their hopes too high. About 50 years ago, the Bears floated the idea of moving there.
But this week’s agreement brings the team a step closer toward securing the racetrack property for a new stadium and leaving their longtime home at Soldier Field.
That news generated a lot of discussion around the village Wednesday.
Tim Groder, owner of Peggy Kinnane’s Irish Restaurant and Pub at Vail Avenue and Campbell Street, said a move by the Bears to Arlington Heights, “could only do great things for the economy out here.”
“They’re planning to build a state-of-the-art stadium, so the pre- and postgame crowd will probably be big.”
Across the street at Armand’s Pizzeria, owner Michael Caringella was equally enthusiastic.
“I’m sorry the track closed, because I loved it, but bringing the Bears here will be great for the community, the businesses, for everyone. It’s a win-win, and I don’t know when it will happen, but I’m all for it,” Caringella said.
But Arlington Heights resident Shannon Distel said she’s “not looking forward to the traffic and construction.”
“I would have been happier if they were using the site for more affordable housing and green space, but I do think bringing the Bears here will be good for the community, and from what I’ve heard, they’ve outgrown Soldier Field,” Distel said.
Arlington Heights resident Mark Heffernan said he sees a lot of opportunity in bringing the Bears to the village, as well as benefits to the entire northwest suburban area.
“A new stadium would provide a better experience for families, and for the Bears too,” he said.
“You’ve got the Metra right there, and (Route) 53, so much space for parking and I-90 is right there. I’m going to miss the track, even though I never gambled there, but I’d take my kids. I’m looking forward to not just the Bears, but more family experiences.”
Dilip Patel, owner of Newsstand and Coffee, which is tucked inside the depot of the Arlington Heights Metra station, gestured toward a rack of Chicago Cubs T-shirts for sale on Wednesday, and said he might soon be adding Bears merchandise to his shop’s inventory.
“I only have 20% of the business I had before the pandemic, so the Bears moving here would be very good for me, because people could get on and off the train, and grab something to go,” said Patel, whose customers are nearly entirely commuters on the Union-Pacific Northwest Line.
Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes said he “could not be more excited.”
“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,” Hayes said in a statement. “There is a long way to go as we begin this journey, and many issues for the community to discuss, but 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.”
Township High School District 214 Superintendent David Schuler said the Arlington Heights-based district had a partnership in the past with the Bears, which held a training camp practice at Prospect High School in 2017.
“With the team possibly moving to our backyard, we hope to have more collaborations with them in the future,” Schuler said. “This could be a great opportunity to significantly expand a partnership through our career pathways program to provide a talent pipeline for the jobs that will be created by the Bears, surrounding businesses and other opportunities we can’t yet imagine.”
Former Arlington Heights Mayor Arlene Mulder, who served 20 years until 2013, and more recently was on the Illinois Racing Board, said she was sorry to see Arlington International Racecourse close, but glad to see the Bears make a bid to move.
“It’s sad to see it,” she said of the track closing. “We do have a lot of Bears fans in Arlington Heights, so that might be a good use for some of the property.”
As a farmer’s daughter who grew up in California riding ponies, she said she appreciates people who work in that field, but said it may be time to move on.
Her village, she said, “is not full of rich people, but it’s a great place to raise a family.”
Arlington Heights is an upper middle-class suburb. The village reports that it has about 76,000 residents, and a median household income of $88,000. It’s about a 45-minute drive from downtown Chicago with no traffic, but can be almost twice that long during rush hour.
The village is home to about 4,000 businesses, including Northrop Grumman Corp., Northwest Community Hospital, a new Amazon package distribution center and numerous mom-and-pop businesses.
Holly Connors, founding member of @properties, a real estate brokerage firm in Arlington Heights, said she’s cautiously optimistic, as “it will be many years before the shovel hits the ground.”
“The Bears coming here to Arlington Heights would have a positive impact on the economy, and when the local economy does well, real estate property values do well,” Connors said, adding that officials in the village will need to work with adjacent communities to address the impact of traffic flow and other issues.
“I want to make sure the decision-makers are making quality decisions,” Connors said.
Jon Ridler, executive director of the Arlington Heights Chamber of Commerce, said the organization is ready to work with the Bears and any other businesses on developing the site.
“I think it’s going to be another great asset for not only Arlington Heights but surrounding communities,” he said. “When you have something like the Bears in your area, it increases awareness of the community and the region, not only for tourism, but for businesses that want to locate here.”
Ridler hopes the site would also host other entertainment venues such as concerts or other sports with hotels, restaurants and other hospitality business, to make it a destination beyond the 10 or so Bears games a year.
Ridler also manages the business chambers for neighboring Palatine, Mount Prospect and Rolling Meadows, and says they all welcome the Bears.
Just across the border, in the shadow of the now shuttered racetrack, Palatine resident Chad Rubak said he is excited about the possibility of having the Bears as a neighbor — even if he is a Packers fan.
“I’ll miss the racetrack, but I’ll love the development, the game day atmosphere and the entertainment district that will go along with it,” said Rubak, who lives in a subdivision of town houses across the street from the track. “I love Arlington Heights and the Palatine area, but this will bring some additional economic growth to the area.”
Rubak’s neighbor Tim Hagn said it is difficult to form an opinion on the Bears potentially purchasing Arlington Park, as it remains unknown how the rest of the land will be developed.
“Obviously they are going to build a football field, but that parcel of land is enormous,” he said . “What are they going to do with the rest of it?”
Hagn also remains skeptical that a deal with the Bears will reach fruition.
“I’m not convinced it’s actually going to happen,” he said.
Ron LeSaar, who lives on a tree-lined street of single-family homes just north of Arlington Park, said he is concerned about how a football stadium might affect residential property values if problems with traffic, parking, noise and crowds spill over to the adjacent neighborhood.
When the track was operating, announcements could be heard on race days, but overall, the park was not a problem, LeSaar said. But adding a mixed-use development offering football, entertainment and other uses could generate more traffic, and impact the neighborhood, he said.
Still, LeSaar said he sees the possibility of an “economic boom” for the area and potentially more revenue for surrounding suburbs if a deal for revenue sharing with Arlington Heights can be reached.
“Right now it’s wait and see and hope for the best,” he said.
Moira Palmer, who lives just northeast of Arlington Park, said she is excited about the prospect of being able to walk to Bears games.
“My kids have already been texting us ‘party at the Palmers’ house every weekend,’ ” she said.