Arlington Heights

In letter to school districts, Bears' ‘non-starter' might explain why team is looking outside Arlington Heights

Newly-obtained letters by NBC 5 Investigates underscore why the Bears may have said that Arlington Park is “no longer their singular focus.”

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Chicago Bears’ President and CEO Kevin Warren on Monday evening met with community members and business owners in Arlington Heights who are interested in the team moving forward with building a stadium on the grounds of the former Arlington Park site.

But shifting that desire into a reality will largely depend on if the Bears become comfortable with the tax bill there, which has been a point of contention.

Newly-obtained letters by NBC 5 Investigates underscore why the Bears may have said that the former horse racecourse site is “no longer their singular focus.”

In a letter sent May 4 to school districts that serve the northwest suburbs, Warren called the current $95 million valuation on the land a “non-starter.”

So how did we get here?

In early June, the site’s former owner Churchill Downs, still on the hook for last year’s tax bill, reached a settlement agreement with area school districts to pay taxes on the property now valued at $95 million.

The school districts had initially intervened in the re-assessment, arguing they have an interest because they rely so heavily on property tax revenue.

During the negotiations with the Cook County Assessor’s Office, the site’s former owner, Churchill Downs, along with three school districts, reached a settlement agreement that set the land value at $95 million.

On this episode of Football Night in Chicago, Shelby Bremer joins David Haugh to discuss Bears' new stadium plans. Shelby talks about why the Bears have cooled on the Arlington Park site

But that deal is only good for one year – meaning the Bears will likely have to negotiate again and have already balked at the assessor’s previous valuation of $197 million – close to the same amount the Bears paid for the property.

In his May 4 letter to the school districts, Warren countered with a $52 million value for the land, alluding to the team’s fears that the tax bill would only increase as they build a stadium.

“Because we do not have property tax fairness,” Warren wrote. “We will not be moving forward with plans to develop the property at this time…”

In a May 12 response from the school districts obtained by NBC 5 Investigates, the school districts wrote back saying: “given the substantial gulf that exists between our positions, we do not see the need to make a counteroffer.”

Spokespeople for both the school districts and the Bears told NBC 5 Investigates the two sides have not engaged in any formal talks within the past month.

But the Bears have had discussions with other parties.

Waukegan, Naperville and the city of Chicago have all either expressed interest or at least engaged in talks with the Bears about the future.

And the developers of a section of land near the South Loop known as “the 78” say they are open to talks as well but remain focused on the first phase of their development plan.

Their statement provided read as follows:

“The 78 is a unique, 62-acre parcel of land in the heart of Chicago with the potential for an unprecedented level of development and economic opportunity in our city. The site features easy access via all modes of transportation and offers over a half-mile of riverfront that will be programmed with public spaces and retail outlets. Our plan is to bring a vibrant, mixed-use development with mixed-income residences, institutional users, office space, unique retail, open green space and an activated Riverwalk that connects to Ping Tom Park. While we are open to discussions around an iconic stadium and entertainment district, we remain focused on the first phase of the development plan, the Chicago Innovation District, anchored by the University of Illinois Discovery Partners Institute, which is slated to break ground in 2024."

Sports consultant Marc Ganis spoke to NBC 5 Investigates about these recent developments, saying: “It's not saber rattling by the Bears. What occurred was a change condition. The tax assessor quintupled the property tax to double digit millions from where it was with when it was on by Churchill Downs. And that's with a piece of land that has no operating activity on it.”

Ganis said the Bears’ search for new suitors and new potential sites for a stadium is derived directly from the dispute over property taxes at the Arlington Heights site.

“… when you're talking about investing $3 billion in a single building privately and you don't have an expectation of what your property taxes are going to be you don't have certainty. That's a really difficult pill to swallow,” he said.

The story of where the Bears end up is still being written.

And who ends up being the other main character will largely depend, Ganis says, on what assurances the Bears can get on a tax bill.

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