Gaming Business

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

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.

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 Casino.org by email that the Board’s actions give the community more control, “but not ultimate control,” over the fate of the track.

Steve Bittenbender

Horse Racing, Sports Betting, Gaming Legislation, Midwest and Gulfport Casinos----Steve Bittenbender is a veteran reporter, and brings more than two decades of experience covering sports, gaming business, and politics and legislation to Casino.org, which he joined in 2019. Based in Louisville, Kentucky -- the epicenter of the US horse racing industry -- Steve has also covered major collegiate and professional sports for the Associated Press and the Louisville Courier Journal, and is frequently featured on local network TV newscasts and podcasts for his horse racing business and legislative expertise. A Reuters contributor, he has also previously served as editor for Government Security News. Steve lives with his wife and son, and is an avid poker player, having learned from his uncle as a wholesome after-school pasttime with cookies and milk. Email: stevebittenbender@casino.org

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  • Having grown up just a block from the track, and still living here today - it will be GREATLY missed if turned over to just about anything except racing. While there are indeed issues, the track is one of the main attractions in the Arlington Heights area. It has provided local jobs, local entertainment, and exceptional value to the entire surrounding area. The historic value of the site is also something to consider. Despite the relatively new Grandstand, much of the property has its original features - few other racetracks in the nation can boast that - including Churchill Downs itself.

    Horse racing has been declining in recent years, but these last two with the COVID garbage have been the worst. Arlington has *always* relied on both racing and off-season event hosting. Craft shows, trade shows, concerts and other events have all been cancelled by a short-sighted and medically ignorant Governor simply because "he said so." We have lost THOUSANDS of small local businesses due to his power grab. To lost Arlington will cost us even more. The State's unwillingness to work with CDI these past two years have left the corporation little choice in this matter - a business can stand breaking even for a couple years - but cannot be expected to take losses for indefinite periods on the whims of ignorant and uncaring politicians.

    Placing a warehouse or industrial area on this property should be an EPA issue, as there is flowing water to its pond, and the landscaping has been a haven for local wildlife, which is being stressed due to improper land use management by several villages and towns. It would also further reduce air quality in the area due to the increased shipping traffic. Finally, it would also be a detriment to the aesthetic value of the immediate surroundings. We have PLENTY of industrial complexes and more than enough warehousing to cover any need, and much of it sits idle. Further, without substantial PUBLIC planning process, the local flood plains can be changed drastically depending on what is put on that land. ACE will need to be a part of the process. And any new construction MUST be in accord with both true science and the public opinion.

    Sports centers - one that gets tossed around is a stadium for the Bears - will require major infrastructure expansion in an already congested area. Traffic patterns will necessarily change. It will place an undue burden on several communities and an already lackadaisical state legislature. One only has to look at the Horizon complex just a few miles down the road, and the upturning of local lifestyles that caused - and the venue truly does not attract the size and scope of crowds that a Bears (Or Cubs) stadium would.

    The Grandstand building is roughly 35 years old. When it was rebuilt after the fire, it was upgraded to state-of-the-art standards, and planning was done to make it viable for "the next hundred years."

    In the past, the State of Illinois itself was a huge part of the sale process. This is certainly not the first time Arlington has been sold. It has been through at least 4 owners in the past 40 years. I wonder why, this time, it rests with the Village alone, and the State has not stepped in -especially given their propensity to hold several fundraisers every year at the venue.

    Locals will complain that Arlington never pays taxes. This is patently NOT true, though some taxes are deferred, and others discounted, this is based on values that residents will come to miss greatly: patronage of local businesses (from gas stations and restaurants to shopping, hotels and other businesses), the beauty should not be discounted, the wildlife corridor, the flood control (Arlington sits lower than much of the surrounding area) and more. With the sale and re-development of the 326 acres, local property taxes (depending on what is put there) could go UP. Any development going on this land will almost assuredly get the same tax benefits worked into the deal that ALL major developments do in our state - and this is always a concern for any resident within 5 miles. We already pay among the highest taxes in the state. (And we are not seeing much value for our money.)

    Palatine, Rolling Meadows, Elk Grove an
    d other communities in the area should ALL be involved in this, as it affects all of us - every single resident - whether we realize it or not. It is truly heartbreaking that residents and other village politicians are not more informed, concerned and involved in this process.

    It will be a shame if we have to lose Arlington - but if we allow it to go out without so much as a whimper, we all deserve what we get. We will have even more to complain about in the near future.

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Steve Bittenbender