Arlington Heights Wants to Put the Reins on Churchill’s Efforts to Sell Historic Track

Posted on: May 5, 2021, 02:05h. 

Last updated on: July 19, 2021, 02:59h.

Even as Churchill Downs Inc. progresses on its plan to close and sell Arlington International Racecourse, officials in a Chicago suburb are taking steps to possibly save the track. Or at the very least, have some say over what happens with the property’s nearly 330 acres of prime real estate.

Arlington International Racecourse
An aerial view of Arlington International Racecourse. Churchill Downs Inc. is taking offers on the 326-acre property, which includes the track (lower right), the parking lots, and the barns and training area above and to the left of the upper parking lot. Officials in Arlington Heights, Ill., are trying to keep horse racing a possibility at the nearly century-old track. (Image: Google Maps)

At its Monday meeting, the Arlington Heights Village Board approved two measures. One was a resolution that states the village will consider zoning changes to the property in order to restrict certain uses.

The other was an ordinance that would ban Churchill Downs from placing use restrictions on the site. That way, the buyer or buyers of the property could still allow racing at a site where horses have galloped since 1927.

Horse racing has lost some of its luster in recent years, as several once-prominent tracks have closed. However, the village embraces the track as a central part of its identity. The center of the village’s seal is a letter A in the shape of a horse’s head and neck.

Resident Sean Stevens addressed the board Monday. He brought up the history of the track that’s across the street from his house. He understood Churchill Downs has a say in whom buys it. However, he hopes to see the tradition continue.

It’s something you don’t want to just tear down,” he said. “It’s one of the most beautiful tracks literally in the country, world-renowned.”

He found supportive ears from board members, who voted unanimously on both measures.

“I don’t want to see the track go away, but that’s not up to me,” Village Trustee John Scaletta said. “It’s up to whoever purchases the property. But I think it’s important to leave the door open that it could possibly remain a track.”

Auction Underway for Arlington

In late February, officials with the Louisville-based gaming company formally announced plans to sell the track. The company signaled the 2021 meet would almost assuredly be its last. The meet started last week and runs through Sept. 25.

Even before then, though, many in the racing industry expected a sale. After Illinois racing officials finally persuaded state lawmakers to pass an expanded gaming bill that allowed tracks to pursue casino gaming, Churchill Downs declined the opportunity to apply for a license.

By then, it already purchased a majority stake in Rivers Casino Des Plaines, the state’s most popular casino. It’s located only about 20 minutes away from Arlington.

A Churchill Downs representative did not return a message Tuesday seeking comment.

However, on April 21, the company gave stock analysts an update during its first-quarter earnings call.

Churchill Downs Inc. CEO Bill Carstanjen told analysts that the auction process for the 326-acre property is underway. He said the auction will allow the gaming company to “more effectively deploy this currently locked-up capital” into its other projects.

The preliminary bid date has been set. While Carstanjen did not reveal it, he did say it would be by the end of June.

“And as those bids come in, in the second quarter, we will evaluate them and figure out next steps,” he said. “I think the ultimate conclusion of that process is something I can’t responsibly predict for you, because we will have to see the nature of the bids and if the property gets split up between multiple bidders, or if it’s a single bidder, et cetera.”

Despite putting Arlington on the block, Carstanjen has said Churchill Downs remains committed to racing in Illinois.

Real Estate Firm Sees Multiple Options for Property

The company is working with commercial real estate firm CBRE to market Arlington to prospective bidders.

CBRE touts that the track resides in an upscale part of the Chicago area. There are nearly 200,000 households within seven miles of Arlington. The average household income is more than $115,000, with the average home price at more than $340,000.

Within five miles of the track, nearly a quarter of the households earn more than $150,000.

Among the development possibilities, CBRE suggestions for the site include a residential community, an entertainment venue, a corporate campus, a sports center, or a logistics hub.

Several board members on Monday said the one thing they did not want to see is the grounds turned into a warehouse park for a company like Amazon.

Arlington Heights Curious About Racing Interest

There remains hope a buyer would be willing to swoop in and purchase the track from Churchill Downs. That, of course, is contingent on the seller accepting the bid.

It also would almost certainly require the buyer to apply for a gaming license. That way, it would have slot machines on site. That revenue would boost purses and attract more horses to race during the summer.

This is why Arlington Heights is seeking to keep Churchill Downs from putting a covenant restriction on the track. Such a provision could keep a buyer from offering racing or gaming ever at the site.

We don’t know if there’s going to be serious interest from other buyers for horse racing. But given that long history, we want to make sure that that the village is doing all it can do to preserve the option of horse racing being part of this site,” Village Manager Randy Recklaus said.

After the meeting, Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes told by email that the Board’s actions give the community more control, “but not ultimate control,” over the fate of the track.