Residents of the northwest suburbs were skeptical Wednesday about infrastructure changes and the use of taxpayer dollars to fund the Chicago Bears’ proposed redevelopment of the Arlington Park International Racetrack at an event organized by a pair of libertarian groups. and conservatives.
Billed as a debate, “Don’t feed the bears…?” it is the latest in a series of initiatives by the libertarian political advocacy group Americans for Prosperity opposing the use of public money in any Bears-related development in Arlington Heights. The group is funded by conservative billionaire Koch Brothers. The Heartland Institute also opposes the use of public money on the team.
Many of the 20 attendees who spoke to the Tribune said they were regulars at Heartland Institute and opposed using public money for the stadium and accompanying mixed-use commercial and residential district the Bears have launched.
Jim Lakely, vice president and director of communications for the Heartland Institute, said the group invited Arlington Heights Mayor Thomas Hayes and other town leaders to participate in the debate Aug. 29, but Hayes declined.
Most of the people who came to the Heartland Breitbart Freedom Center were not from Arlington Heights but from nearby communities like Palatine, Wilmette and Rolling Meadows. Americans for Prosperity Illinois deputy state director Brian Costin later said they hoped to reach more Arlington Heights residents through live streaming of the event, but noted that the Bears’ potential redevelopment of Arlington Park would affect to the entire region.
Jean Link, 73, of Arlington Heights, came ready to listen, knowing she would be directly affected if the Bears end their $197.2 million purchase agreement for the site
Link said she had been on duty at the Heartland Institute before, but attended on Wednesday because she was “interested in the fiscal situation.”
“I understand that the Bears organization will fund the stadium,” he said.
But, he added, he hoped Arlington Heights taxpayers would end up paying at least some of the redevelopment costs at the 326-acre site.
Bears leadership has said the team will only seek public funding for the mixed-use development they have proposed to build near the stadium.
On a September 8 public meeting coordinated by the team, Bears president George McCaskey said that without public support for infrastructure, “the project as outlined tonight will not be able to move forward.”
“I want to understand what participation is expected of people who live in Arlington Heights,” Link said.
For Link, the event “confirmed that the Bears plan to subsidize their own stadium, but all other buildings in the area would be taxed in the community.”
Link said that he didn’t agree with that approach. He was also concerned about some of the traffic and infrastructure issues that arose.
“I live north of where the stadium would be built,” he said. “I will be affected by traffic.”
Specifically, Link said, she was worried about what would happen to Route 53 if the Bears land in Arlington Heights.
That was the main concern of Anthony Ciani, 45, of Palatine. He said he lives near Route 53 and anticipated that the Bears’ arrival in the area would require an expansion of that highway.
Ciani said he feared the Illinois Department of Transportation would turn an expanded Route 53 into a toll road.
“All of these communities around here will be tolled off, so you really won’t be able to go anywhere without using the toll road,” he said. “That’s probably the biggest concern.”
Ciani said he saw some appeal in the Bears rebuilding Arlington Park. But “think of it this way”, he continued. “They are going to need to redo the sewer. They’ll have to build some roads, some access ramps. It could come out to $500 million.”
Ciani estimated that the Bears would spend about $4 billion on the overall project.
Compared to the total cost of the project, Ciani said he thought “the Bears can easily include (infrastructure) in whatever plan they have.”
Terry Przybylski, 66, of Des Plaines, said his main takeaway was that “professional football is an extremely big business,” though he said he understood a team’s motivation for seeking public financial assistance for a project like Arlington Park.
“They must feel that they are in a very unsatisfactory situation in Chicago,” he said.
But Przybylski left the presentation unsympathetic to the Bears’ request.
“I really don’t think the use of public funds is really justified for a business that is going to be trading billions of dollars, when there are other very pressing concerns that local governments have,” he said.
Hayes has said that using taxpayer funds to bring the team to town is a “last resort.”
Without village representatives in attendance, Heartland Institute President James Taylor made what he called a “devil’s advocate” argument for publicly funding the project, while Americans for Prosperity’s Costin argued against it. public subsidies.
Costin’s presentation focused on the potential impact of a tax increment financing, or TIF district, that Arlington Heights could establish as a way to help finance the infrastructure associated with the mixed-use commercial and residential development proposed by the Bears.
TIF districts work by freezing property taxes and using the tax revenue that comes in over a set period to pay for infrastructure improvements in the area. Typically, a TIF district has an expiration date after which tax revenue would flow as usual to different taxing agencies.
Costin told the audience that while a TIF district might not directly subsidize the stadium, “(the Bears) could use the stadium to take taxpayer money and put it in their other pocket.”
“The property taxes they pay would come out of their left pocket, go to the TIF district, and then go back into their right pocket for the infrastructure costs they were supposed to pay,” Costin said.
Costin claimed that such a setup could funnel $220 million in property tax revenue to the Bears over a 10-year period. He also warned of the impact this type of property tax bypass could have on local school districts and other agencies that run on taxpayer money.
As Taylor took the podium, he told the audience that he agreed with Costin’s point of view and would not make a financial argument as to why public money should help finance the redevelopment of Arlington Park. Instead, she suggested that people consider public money to help fund a variety of cultural attractions, particularly the arts.
“Arlington Heights, (according to) publicly available numbers, spends a little over $200,000 each year on its Metropolis Performing Arts Center,” Taylor said. “That facility draws roughly 50,000 attendees per year, which equates to a subsidy of about $4 per attendee.”
Taylor said that based on projected attendance levels at a potential Bears stadium, the Bears’ subsidy per fan would actually be lower: about $3 per attendee.
“If you’re not going to oppose those other subsidies, I think you have to find a good reason why you would oppose subsidizing the Bears,” Taylor said.
Americans for Prosperity Illinois has kept up pressure on the town not to provide the Bears with public money for the stadium and surrounding development despite protests from town leaders that the group’s proposal would affect Arlington Heights’ ability to bring business to town.
The petition has garnered signatures from at least 1% of the village’s registered voting population, allowing Americans for Prosperity to bring it before the Village Board for consideration as an ordinance.
If the town rejects the ordinance and Americans for Prosperity collects signatures representing 12% of the voting population, then the proposal will appear on the ballot in the next town election as a referendum.
the group too launched a poll which said 72% of those surveyed supported moving the Bears to the village, but 68% opposed using public money to bring them to Arlington Heights.
Hayes has struck back at the group, calling them outsiders who are using the village to advance a political agenda and questioning the slant of questions in the survey that found opposition to the use of public money for Bears-related development.
The town has taken some preliminary steps regarding redevelopment, including hiring of two consultants for economic impact and traffic analysis. Earlier this month, village leaders hosted acwhole meeting committee for residents to voice their concerns about the refurbishment and discuss the team’s presentation.