Hours after state Sen. Ann Gillespie, D-Arlington Heights, filed a bill in Springfield that could allow up to 40 years worth of tax breaks to major organizations like the Chicago Bears and the team’s potential move to Arlington Heights, the Village Board heard again from residents Monday who were skeptical of the team’s behemoth proposal and the impact it could have on their community.
“I call into question the motives of this move and I have to wonder if this has to do with money,” Debbie Fisher said, speaking during the public comment portion of the Monday night board meeting. “The residents of Arlington Heights should be able to vote on this matter because it directly impacts our lives in so many ways.”
As he has done in response to similar, previous comments, Mayor Tom Hayes assured residents who were questioning the project that plans are only in the most preliminary phase and that residents would have ample opportunity to give input.
“You will have [input],” Hayes said. “Trust me, that’s the way representative democracy works.”
In September 2021, the Bears signed a purchase agreement to buy the 326-acre now-shuttered Arlington International Racecourse property. In September 2022, the NFL organization unveiled plans for a sprawling, multi-billion dollar stadium complex and mixed-use commercial and residential district on the site of the historic racetrack.
Fisher questioned the motivations of the project and asked for the chance to weigh in further on the plans.
Fisher told village trustees and leaders they were “expecting [taxpayers] to pay for the mini Chicago that’s going to be built next to the stadium” and asked that they “reconsider this move and abandon this project. The Chicago Bears should stay in Chicago where they belong.”
Roberta Fisher echoed the idea of a “mini Chicago,” saying that the Bears appeared to be proposing “to build another village” alongside the stadium.
“I’m just very concerned that the that the citizens are not fully informed about really what’s going to happen,” she said.
In response to those comments, Hayes repeated that the only pact the village has struck so far with the Bears is a “predevelopment agreement,” greenlit in November, which provides a road map for a possible redevelopment of Arlington International Racecourse.
“The stadium is not a done deal yet,” Hayes said.
Later, he told Pioneer Press that village officials “understand their concerns, and they will be addressed. We just can’t give them hard and fast answers right now.”
Massive unknowns about the Bears potential move remain. The team has not yet closed on the property sale, saying they intend to make a decision by the end of the first quarter of 2023. Even if they do go through with buying the property, there’s still no guarantee that they’d build a stadium on it.
But the policymakers and officials at various levels of government, from villages and school boards to the General Assembly, appear to be preparing for a Bears team move into the northwest sububurb..
On Feb. 6, Pioneer Press reported that Arlington Heights police and fire officials have made a total of four trips to visit stadiums in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and a suburb of Dallas to watch how first responders in those cities manage giant entertainment venues there.
The day the Village Board met and heard public comments on the Bears proposal, the Tribune reported on the filing in Springfield of Senate Bill 1350 , which would amend the Illinois tax code to include special provisions for “megaprojects,” defined as major developments that cost at least $500 million and which the hosting municipality determines would prove a “substantial public benefit” if they locate in a village or city.
The measure, as currently drafted, would allow for property taxes to be frozen for up to 40 years for a given project.
It has a requirement that a developer receiving those tax breaks make a payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, to the host city or village. Municipalities that receive PILOT are legally obligated to distribute those payments, as revenue would be allocated on an ordinary tax bill, according to the proposed legislation.
Hayes said he spoke with Gillespie about the measure before she filed it and was surprised to hear that it had officially been submitted in Springfield.
“I did not know that she was going to submit the legislation today,” he said. “I did talk to her about it tonight.”
He said their conversation left him optimistic.
“She and as well as I, and everyone involved in this, wants to make sure that it is something that’s going to address everybody’s concerns,” he said.
One interested party is local school districts, which rely heavily on property taxes generated from the racecourse. Township High School District 214 began meeting about the proposed legislation before it was filed. The SD214 Board of Education is considering hiring a lobbyist, on advice of the superintendent and district attorney who said that “right now you’re (the board) on the outside looking in” as lawmakers hammer out the details of the bill.
Arlington Heights Village Manager Randy Recklaus said the village is “encouraging the parties who are working on this [bill] to listen to the school districts.”