Arlington Heights rejects petition to prevent tax incentives for proposed Chicago Bears stadium – but the measure could come back

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Arlington Heights officials rejected a petition to ban village financial incentives for the Chicago Bears or other businesses, arguing the petition didn’t have enough valid signatures — and warning that such a move would hurt businesses and taxpayers.

The petition calls on the village to enact an “Anti-Corporate Welfare Ordinance” that would ban any financial or other incentive for a company to operate in the village. The petition was filed by Americans for Prosperity Illinois, part of a libertarian group backed by the conservative Koch brothers.

Mayor Tom Hayes called the proposal “a terrible idea” and said it would ban any form of tax benefit or even public parking that could be seen as a financial incentive to business. He added that any suggestion of favoritism among village officials was “blatantly false and unfounded”.

Last year, the Bears entered into a preliminary purchase agreement to buy Arlington International Racecourse from Churchill Downs Inc. for $197 million. The team is undergoing due diligence to see if the 326-acre site would meet all requirements before closing the deal at the end of this year or early next year.

To move to Arlington Heights, the team would have to pay to break the lease at Soldier Field in Chicago, where the team has been playing for half a century. Mayor Lori Lightfoot has proposed filling the stadium with a $2 billion dome.

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Team officials have said they would not seek taxpayer help to build the stadium, but would need public assistance to build infrastructure for the adjacent $5 billion development of housing, offices, retail and entertainment.

A village ordinance allows the village government to consider approving a referendum on a petition if it receives supportive signatures from 1% of registered voters, or 557 people.

Americans for Prosperity Illinois submitted 667 signatures on Sept. 6, but some signatures did not match registered signatures, had no signature, had incorrect or no names, or the signatories did not reside in Arlington Heights, leaving only 544 valid signatures, Village Manager Randall said Recklaus.

Applicants may always add more signatures. If the board still rejects the proposal, petitioners can get signatures from 12% of registered voters to put the measure on the ballot.

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Americans for Prosperity has said a referendum would be binding, but village attorney Hart Passman said it wouldn’t, saying nothing in the ordinance or state law says it’s binding.

Recklaus gave an overview of how tax incentives have been very successful in attracting and retaining businesses that lower homeowners’ property taxes.

Most importantly, he said, the center of the village was successfully rebuilt through a Tax Increase District, or TIF. Under the TIF, any increases in downtown property taxes were plowed back into area improvements such as utilities and roads.

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While the TIF was in effect from 1983 to 2006, annual property tax revenues rose from $650,000 to $6.5 million, he said. When the TIF expired after 23 years, that money was distributed among all the local tax authorities.

The result is a thriving center with condominiums and apartments, restaurants, a theater and three public parking spaces. A ban on incentives could even be interpreted as banning public parking and eliminating the use of village streets for outdoor dining in the downtown area, Recklaus said.

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Other village programs have provided sales tax rebates and low-interest or forgivable loans to help businesses survive the COVID pandemic or other problems.

In the case of the Bears, a TIF could pay for new sewers and other infrastructure, such as proposed new ramps to direct traffic from Route 53 under Northwest Highway and railroad tracks to the stadium.

While some TIFs and stadium projects elsewhere have failed, Recklaus said, a new Arlington Heights TIF would only be approved if it is shown to generate more revenue than paying all village costs. Banning such deals would put the village at a serious competitive disadvantage and likely reduce the tax base.

Americans for Prosperity released a recent poll showing that 68% of voters polled in Arlington Heights were against using tax dollars for the Bears, compared to 22% in support. The poll also found that 55% supported the anti-corporate welfare ordinance.

The group’s deputy state director Brian Costin previously issued a statement saying, “Arlington Heights is proposing the largest corporate welfare deal in Village history for a billionaire owner in the world’s richest sports entertainment company. This special treatment isn’t alone.” unfair to residents and other business owners, but a vast majority of economists surveyed about sports stadium subsidies felt they were a bad deal for taxpayers.”

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