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

The Bears tried to describe their $197.2 million pending purchase of stadium land in Arlington Heights as some sort of happy accident. Both chairman George McCaskey and president/CEO Ted Phillips went out of their way Monday to say that 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 team has grand plans for the site, if and when the sale goes through. Both 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 to 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 that 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. 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 – 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 could 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 Monday the team was “happy to engage” with both the city and the Chicago Park District “about present operations at Soldier Field.” The stadium was remodeled in 2002 for $587 million but lacks a large capacity and luxury amenities of the league’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 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 — Phillips said that the Bears’ “focus for long-term development is exclusively on that property at Arlington Heights.”

In one breath, McCaskey called the property 6 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.”

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