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Arlington Park vision's missing ingredient
Daily Herald Editorial Board
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Published: 5/6/2010 12:05 AM

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The president of Arlington Park sketched out a vision this week for a sprawling entertainment complex that would surround the renowned horse track with shopping, live entertainment and a revitalized hotel. Such a plan, he said, is missing just one thing.

But he identified the wrong thing.

Yes, the addition of slot machines may be a linchpin for Arlington Park's survival and further development. The track has been angling for some form of slots for more than a decade, and its president, Roy Arnold, insisted to the Daily Herald editorial board this week as track officials have been insisting for years, that it cannot survive long without them.

But as lawmakers steam toward adjournment this weekend with yet another proposal for slots at Illinois race tracks languishing in committee, it's clear that one other factor is missing, too - sustained communication between the track and the community it is a part of, Arlington Heights.

As critical as the outcome is to both parties, it's surprising that neither has reached out more to the other to advance their common interests.

The proposal cooling its heels in Springfield would authorize up to 1,200 slot machines at Arlington Park and other tracks, generating, supporters say, millions for the cash-starved state. But it has a fatal flaw. It overrides home-rule authority and forces on communities something that, let's be candid, falls just short of a vast land-based casino, especially since Arnold refused to rule out the possibility of seeking other forms of gambling in the future.

Understandably, Arlington Heights opposes such an usurpation of its self-government rights. Less understandable is why the village isn't doing more to protect them and why the track, generally a model corporate citizen, isn't doing more to accommodate them.

If Arnold is correct, Arlington Heights is only a few years away from losing one of the jewels of the horse racing world, a venue that Village President Arlene Mulder, in a separate editorial board meeting, acknowledged has brought the town international recognition and acclaim, not to mention substantial annual tax revenue. Yet, Mulder says Arnold intimated some of his ideas to her months ago but she concedes the village has done nothing to push the discussion. Meanwhile, Arnold questions why he has to be distracted by "all these side conversations."

The legislature and racing interests have concerns that permitting communities to opt out could undermine a slots plan, and Arnold effectively notes that, as with the statewide smoking ban, sometimes legislation requires all communities to comply if it is to succeed. But surely overriding home rule isn't the only way to ensure conformity among communities and fair competition among gambling interests on slots. And surely Arlington Heights values its home-rule authority too much to simply abdicate it to the legislature and let the state rather than the village feel the heat of controversy.

Arlington Park is not the only Illinois track with a stake in the slots legislation. Nor is the outline that Arnold laid out an open-and-shut benefit for the village or state. Many numbers he forecast are speculative, and any reasonable person must wonder whether the region can accept major casinos clustered as close as Elgin, Des Plaines and Arlington Heights.

But Arnold would have us believe that overcoming questions about slots is the park's only hope, and Mulder insists she and her village board cannot imagine a future without Arlington.

With the stakes so high, how can the village not be looking for ways to help the track get the revenue stream it needs? And, how can the park not be looking for solutions that would guarantee the village its home-rule protections?

No, the linchpin missing from the enticing vision Arlington Park has laid out for its Arlington Heights campus is not just slot machines. It's conversation.