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Interior demolition begins at Arlington Park; what does it mean for progress of Bears stadium plan?

Bears begin interior demolition at Arlington Racetrack
Bears begin interior demolition at Arlington Racetrack 02:44

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. (CBS) -- Demolition crews have begun tackling the first phase of tearing down Arlington International Racecourse.

It is the first step toward turning that 326-acre site in Arlington Heights into the new Chicago Bears stadium. As CBS 2 Political Investigator Dana Kozlov reported Tuesday, the work is taking place even though the new stadium is still far from a done deal.

The Village of Arlington Heights approved the first phase of demolition at the old racetrack. Some heavy equipment that will likely later be used to tear down the former racetrack was in place Tuesday.

But the demolition work happening now is on the inside of the old racetrack buildings. That is the only phase of construction the village has approved so far.

Holly Connors started the group Touchdown Arlington – a grassroots coalition serving as a liaison between the Bears, Arlington Heights officials, and the community. The group is hoping to get the new stadium built – but Connors says this start of demolition work does not necessarily represent a no-turning-back point for the Bears and the stadium.

"No, I don't think so," Connors said. "This is the next steppingstone in how we move forward."

Connors and fellow Touchdown Arlington member Ernie Rose – an attorney – meet with Bears executives almost every week. Rose says it makes sense the Bears are demolishing whatever they can – for property tax purposes.

"At this point, they're being taxed as if there's a functioning racecourse here," Rose said. "They're not using it as a racecourse, and they're being taxed several million dollars higher an assessment than the previous owners were."

But demolishing and building are two very different steps – and the latter could be months, if not years, away.

"What the Bears do – whether they keep the property and develop it, which is what we all hope, or whether they have to sell because they can't work things out with the village – I think that's where we're at," Rose said.

Arlington Heights Village Manager Randy Recklaus also says the Bears are far from the goal line. Before approving any further permits, Recklaus said village trustees want guarantees that the stadium itself can be built without using taxpayer dollars – and that the community will see a net dollar benefit, not a loss, when the entire $5 billion redevelopment project is done.

So what will take to get the stadium approved and done at this point?

"Right now, politics," said Connors.

As for a timeline as to when the next demolition permit – for the grandstand – might be up for discussion or approved, the village manager could not say. Lots of issues surrounding the project also have to be hashed out in Springfield.

A Bears spokesperson would only confirm interior demolition was beginning this week, and would not comment further.

The Bears closed on the Arlington Park property in February. The team said that the filing for demolition at the site does not mean for certain that they will be developing it.

But the Bears said in February that if their plan for a new stadium at the Arlington Park site does go ahead, the development is projected to create more than 48,000 jobs, generate $9.4 billion in economic impact for the Chicago area economy, and provide $3.9 billion in new labor income to workers in the region, the Bears wrote in February.

Churchill Downs announced in February 2021 that the Arlington racetrack would be going up for sale, and its last horseraces were held in September of the same year.

That same month, the Bears agreed to purchase the Arlington racetrack property for $197 million.

The Bears have been playing at Soldier Field since 1971. They shared Wrigley Field with the Cubs before that. The most recent stadium renovation took place in 2003.

The stadium went through massive renovations nearly two decades ago at a cost of over $600 million. Even with the upgrade, Soldier Field still has a capacity of only 61,500, smallest in the NFL. There are 13 stadiums that hold more than 70,000.

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