The president of Arlington Park painted starkly contrasting images of the racetrack's future Monday.
In one view, the facility could become part of a diverse entertainment mecca, featuring gambling, horse racing, a retail mall and maybe even some residential development, he said.
Or it could cease to exist.
The difference, Roy A. Arnold told the Daily Herald editorial board, will be determined by video gambling slot machines. If the track gets them, he said, the stage will be set for a dynamic complex taking advantage of the train station already on the property and separate expressway links on two sides. If it doesn't, "We will go out of business; there is no question about that."
Arnold and Michael Campbell, president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, met with the Daily Herald editorial board to make a case for overriding Arlington Heights' home rule authority so 1,200 slot machines could be installed at the track. State Rep. Mark Beaubien Jr., a Barrington Hills Republican who is sponsoring legislation to that effect, attended by telephone.
"I look out the window from my office and see a train station," Arnold said. "There are all sorts of opportunities if you think past gaming."
He described a vision that would include new construction to accommodate some of the gaming, mixed in with retail attractions that could compete with Woodfield Mall and a venue for live entertainment.
He said the track must be able to compete with other gambling venues, including Hawthorne Race Course in Cicero, the Grand Victoria riverboat casino in Elgin and the planned casino in Des Plaines, so individual communities can't be allowed to "opt out" as they are in the state's current video gambling legislation. But he said that didn't mean Arlington Heights wouldn't have control over how the site would be developed.
"It could be an entertainment destination with retail connecting the Metra station to the casino," he said. "We need to explore what that means to the rest of our property, traffic flow and other issues. We must make sure that our vision is compatible with the village's vision."
The horse racing industry says tracks need to, in Arnold's words, "diversify" their gambling options in order to compete with riverboat casinos and other venues. Plus, they say, video casinos would finance track improvements and increase race prizes, which in turn should bring better competition to Illinois horse tracks and spur investment in the industry.
Just adding slots at the park would bring $100 million to $150 million in capital construction to accommodate the machines, Arnold said. If fewer slot machines are allowed, part of the grandstand would be turned into an area to house them, but if all 1,200 are licensed, a separate building would be built "architecturally compatible with the grandstand," he said.
The slot machines would operate year round and would produce 250 full-time jobs besides temporary construction jobs and more jobs at the track, Arnold said. He predicted the project would bring $6.7 million a year to the village of Arlington Heights.
It would produce $125 million immediately in licensing fees for the state, with millions more likely later, he added.
Arnold also predicted that virtually as soon as the legislation passed, someone would immediately buy the nearby Sheraton Chicago Northwest, which went out of business in December.
He claimed supporters have the votes in Springfield to pass the bill, but Beaubien said House Speaker Michael Madigan has not indicated whether he call it for a vote.
With the spring legislative session due to end this week, the tracks and various horse racing interests have struck a deal to allow video gambling, but it has yet to be tested by lawmakers and has prompted opposition from the riverboat casino industry, which fears its business - and potentially state riverboat casino revenues - would suffer.
Churchill Downs Inc., which owns Arlington Park, owns two tracks where slot machines were added. Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots is designed for New Orleans residents, Arnold said, but Calder Race Course & Casino in Miami, near Dolphin Stadium, is a more upscale, Las Vegas-style venue designed to attract tourists.
Arlington Park with slots could be designed either way: for local residents or as a destination and tourist attraction, Arnold said.
But, citing Arlington Park Chairman Richard Duchossois' commitment to distinctive development, he said his vision for Arlington Park would be more in line with Woodbine in Canada and Gulfstream Park in Florida, two non-Churchill Downs venues that combine dining, horse racing, gambling, and other entertainment and retail options.
The track could have temporary facilities operating in 2011 if the bill passes this week, he said.
Duchossois would have the ultimate say over any construction, said Arnold, and he said Duchossois had similar ideas in 1985 when Arlington Park burned and was rebuilt. But he acknowledged that was before much development was built within 10 miles of the park. A professional marketing study would have to include the effect of the new casino in Des Plaines and the Chicago music scene, he said.
"We could develop more of a reason for people to come out on the northwest corridor," he said.
The track would not have to compete with downtown Arlington Heights, said Arnold, suggesting people could park at the track and take a train downtown for dinner or a show.
Mayor Arlene Mulder, contacted later, said she likes the concept.
"Ideas and looking to the future is a very positive thing," Mulder said. "The downturn in the economy has certainly inspired creativity. Anything to promote jobs would be a very good thing. And I think it makes all the sense in the world to utilize the Metra station."
Mulder, however, and other village board members have expressed concerns about the legislative provisions that would override Arlington Heights' home rule authority.
Do: Bill has yet to be called to a vote in Springfield