Legislation was filed in Springfield on Monday that could help the Chicago Bears finance their proposed development in Arlington Heights by freezing the property tax assessment on the former Arlington International Racecourse property for up to 40 years.
The plan, which would require the Bears to invest at least $500 million in converting the 326-acre site to a stadium and surrounding mixed-use development, has been floated for weeks and is being met with some skepticism, even from the state lawmaker who filed the legislation.
“I’ve expressed my doubts about whether this is an approach … we really want to open the door to,” state Sen. Ann Gillespie said Monday.
The Arlington Heights Democrat said she is sponsoring the proposal in part because she wants to see the concept, which she said mirrors a proposal from the Bears and other business interests, incorporated into a broader conversation about reforming a separate form of tax assistance for development known as tax increment financing. TIFs are a frequently used economic development tool that she contends often results in homeowners and small businesses paying higher real estate taxes.
“If we’re going to do it, we need to do it in a way that protects residential taxpayers and small-business taxpayers from paying a disproportionate share of the load,” Gillespie said.
The measure filed Monday, which also could be used for other mega projects, would require companies such as the Bears making such agreements to negotiate an annual payment to local taxing bodies on top of property tax payments based on the frozen assessment. The idea is to create an incentive for larger developments that would not occur without the assistance, according to supporters.
The Bears declined to comment, and the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, which has been a vocal supporter of such a proposal, did not respond to a request for comment.
The legislation has yet to be assigned to a committee for consideration, and it’s likely to face pushback from Chicago lawmakers who don’t want to make it any easier for the NFL’s charter franchise to leave its namesake city.
Sen. Robert Peters, a Chicago Democrat whose district encompasses Soldier Field, said he needs to review the latest proposal from Gillespie but expressed disappointment in how the entire situation has been handled by the Bears.
“I think that what I would say to the Bears, what they should’ve first done is talk to people and the variety of different stakeholders before they decided to make a bunch of threats about leaving town,” Peters said. “This whole, long dragged-out process is going the way it is because the Bears themselves worked on it backward. And that’s on them.”
A spokeswoman for Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who previously has said he does not support providing state assistance for a new Bears stadium in the suburbs, did not respond Monday to a request for comment on the latest proposal.
One of Pritzker’s recent economic development priorities was the creation of a special fund to help close deals with businesses that are considering locating in Illinois. But legislation creating the fund, which he signed into law Friday, expressly prohibits its use for providing incentives to pro sports teams that relocate within the state.
Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes said village officials were still trying to fully understand the proposal Gillespie filed Monday, but he welcomed the concept of making a Bears move more financially viable.
“The interesting thing about this proposed legislation is, it’s applicable to other mega projects that could be beneficial to the state,” Hayes said. “So we’re anxiously awaiting the state response to this to determine where things go from here.”
Local school officials are concerned that legislation could limit their property tax revenue, even as they’d potentially be getting more students as a result of new housing on the Bears site.
The mayor said village officials have already talked to school officials to allay their concerns. “This is going to be beneficial in the long run for all taxing bodies — at least that’s our hope,” he said.
Arlington Heights Village Manager Randy Recklaus said it remains unclear “what the bill is going to be in its final form.”
“But no matter who buys Arlington Park, we’re going to be watching closely to see if there’s any new tools created for municipalities like us that deal with these kinds of projects,” he said.
The Bears agreed to buy the former horse track for $197 million in September 2021, but the team has yet to close on the deal. Team Chairman George McCaskey said earlier that while the racetrack property remains the team’s “singular focus,” officials are still trying to determine whether they can close the deal in the first quarter of this year.
New Bears President and CEO Kevin Warren, who in a previous job oversaw the construction of a new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings, added that it’s critical that “we’re methodical, we’re detailed and we take the time to plan it properly.”
In Arlington Heights, the Bears have proposed building a new enclosed stadium as part of $5 billion worth of apartments, condominiums, bars, restaurants and parks, but team executives say they won’t go forward with the development without a government subsidy of the infrastructure costs.
Chicago Tribune’s Jeremy Gorner contributed from Springfield. Pioneer Press reporter Caroline Kubzansky also contributed.
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February 6, 2023 at 10:48PM