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Arlington Racetrack Near Chicago Is Latest Course to Face Redevelopment

Official Says Village Is Open to New Concepts, Including ‘Out-of-Box’ Ideas for 326-Acre Property

Churchill Downs is putting Arlington International Racecourse in Arlington Heights, Illinois, on the market.


A Chicago suburb is on the verge of losing its treasured and iconic identity and is opening the gates to fresh redevelopment ideas for a 326-acre property where horse racing has ruled for more than nine decades, the latest track around the United States to face being replaced by other projects on its land.


The owner of Arlington International Racecourse in Arlington Heights, Illinois, has put the mega-sized property on the market, concluding there’s a more profitable use for it.


Churchill Downs is taking the same distance of ground other track owners throughout the country have in recent years as the sport’s popularity has paled. But it’s a bittersweet pill for the village. The thoroughbred horse racing, casino and gambling business has been Arlington Heights’ crown jewel since racing first began in the United States in the late 1920s.


“The track made Arlington Heights a household name,” said Michael Mertes, business development coordinator for the municipality located about 25 miles northwest of downtown Chicago.


Arlington Park is 362 acres with a Metra train line on -site and easy access to interstate highways.


“People knew Arlington Heights and where it was,” he added. “The track not only brought people from throughout the Chicago area, but with races like the Arlington Million and the Breeder’s Cup in 2003, people came from all over the country and all over the world.”


That gave the track economic-engine status, too, as an entertainment hub feeding into restaurants, hotels and retail in town. But a site with that much girth and prime access to interstate expressways and commuter rail into Chicago represents an opportunity few well-established areas get.


“It’s a significant, visible portion of our community,” Mertes said, adding the town is still holding out hope the track can survive beyond this year’s season. “If we do have to go to the point where the site needs to be redeveloped, of course, we see it as an opportunity with an understanding we’re losing an iconic part of our community.”


Chicago-area residents long enjoyed the track that prided itself as a family entertainment destination even on race days. Beyond the live horse racing and obvious gambling facility that it is, Arlington Park, as it is widely called, is a mecca for live music, fine dining as well as picnicking, and an annual July 3 fireworks celebration, among the largest in the state.


With more than 100,000 square feet of easily adaptable indoor space and about 2 million square feet of parking, Arlington Park easily doubled as a major meeting and entertainment place for conventions, expos, festivals and concerts. Even brides and grooms would trot out to say their vows in its spacious gardens.


Churchill Downs has been hinting about ending thoroughbred racing in Arlington Heights for more than a year. The Louisville, Kentucky-based company said this week Arlington’s gates will be open during the regular racing season of April through September.


“Arlington’s ideal location in Chicago’s northwest suburbs, together with direct access to downtown Chicago via an on-site Metra rail station, presents a unique redevelopment opportunity,” Bill Carstanjen, Churchill Downs’ CEO, said in a statement.


“We expect to see robust interest in the site and look forward to working with potential buyers, in collaboration with the Village of Arlington Heights, to transition this storied location to its next phase,” he said.


Arlington Heights is open to what that next phase might be, Mertes said. “The comprehensive plan of the village designates it for mixed use. We’re also not limited to that,” he said.


An alarming number of horses have died in recent years, testing America’s already souring appetite for a sport that faces accusations of mistreating its star athletes. That’s led to a handful of racetrack owners selling or redeveloping properties themselves.


In Shakopee, Minnesota, Canterbury Park Holdings has subdivided its 140 acres into a master-planned eat-work-play community. The former Portland Meadows track in Portland, Oregon, is getting reworked into Prologis Meadows, six warehouse and logistics facilities of up to 480,000 square feet for the industrial developer.


And in Detroit, the 650 acres that were once the Pinnacle Race Course are being redeveloped into a pair of industrial buildings that will total 600,000 square feet.


Mertes stressed how open-minded the village is about redevelopment uses but thinks the site might be more conducive to what’s around it, which is residential on one end and commercial on the other.


“We don’t want to pigeonhole anything, but I think an opportunity could be a combination of residential, commercial and maybe entertainment, considering the site already was a source of major entertainment for the Chicago region,” he said.


“We’re open to ideas,” he said. “For a property this size, we’re interested to see not only solutions that are already out there but out-of-box solutions we haven’t even thought of yet."


“We’re curious and excited about potential concepts,” he added.