Arlington Votes To Prohibit Negative Use Restrictions For Churchill Track Sale

The Village of Arlington Heights, looking to keep all its options available as Churchill Downs Inc. attempts to find a buyer for Arlington International Racecourse in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, unanimously passed an ordinance to prohibit “negative use restrictions” Monday night.

Prior to the February announcement to sell the 326-acre tract of land, Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen said in an earnings conference call in July 2020 that the Illinois-based track “will have a higher and better purpose for something else at some point.” That implied CDI would prefer to sell the land to someone who would not continue racing, since a new buyer could potentially apply for a sports wagering license and possibly a racino license, as allowed by the 2019 capital bill that substantially expanded gaming in Illinois and legalized sports betting.

Churchill Downs Inc. purchased a 62% stake in Rivers Casino in nearby Des Plains for $407 million in March 2019, then surprised many by opting not to pursue a racino license for Arlington Park later that year after being one of the most prominent lobbyists for gaming expansion in Illinois. CDI cited an uncompetitive marketplace when adding the tax rate that comes with funding purses as its reason for not seeking the license.

CDI opted to withdraw its application for a sports betting license at Arlington in July 2020 but has partnered with Rush Street Gaming for a bid to build a casino in Waukegan, one of six locations statewide allowed to build one in the 2019 bill.

Ordinance one of two administrative moves by village

The 9-0 vote by the village trustees and Mayor Tom Hayes was one of two unanimous votes regarding the potential sale of the property. The other was a resolution listing types of businesses that local official prefer prospective buyers avoid, including wholesale offices, currency exchange stores, pawn shop cash convertors, contractor offices, and design showrooms, among others.

Trustee Randy Recklaus explained the need for the ordinance prior to the vote. “We don’t know if there’s a market for it — 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 the village is doing all it can do to preserve the option of horse racing being part of the site going forward in the future with future property owners,” he said.

Fellow trustee John Scaletta also held out hope racing would continue in Arlington Heights.

“The track is so important to our village for many different reasons, including our identity, that I don’t want to see the track go away,” he said. Scaletta added it was important to “leave the door open that it can remain a track, because there are so many people who want to see horse racing continue, not only in the state of Illinois but also in the country.”

The tract of land has also long been the subject of rumors the Chicago Bears could relocate there from Soldier Field, but the team’s lease with the city does not expire until 2033. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot pointed that out Thursday during a press conference and added, “The NFL doesn’t let any teams break their leases.”