A new round for racetrack site
Wirtz Beverage to build liquor distribution center at former Sportsman's Park in Cicero
By Joseph Ruzich, Special to the Tribune
January 26, 2011
On the site in Cicero where horses used to race around a track and bettors put down their $2 wagers, about all one sees on these wintry days is debris and blowing garbage.
Horses stopped racing at the famed Sportsman's Park racetrack in 2003, and the decades-old facility — which was renovated in its final years to accommodate auto racing — shut down soon after. It was demolished in 2009.
For years, the site was talked about as a prime spot for development, but grand proposals involving commercial, residential and recreational enterprises became bogged down amid financial woes, political infighting, corruption allegations and lawsuits.
But earlier this month, plans were unveiled for a $70 million liquor distribution center to be built on 35 of the 68 acres of the Sportsman's site near 33rd Street and Laramie Avenue.
Wirtz Beverage Illinois, one of the state's largest beverage-alcohol distributors and part of the family-run corporation that owns the Chicago Blackhawks, plans to build a 600,000-square-foot center including 100,000 square feet of office and conference center space at the site. The company will consolidate its four local distribution facilities — now in Schaumburg, Wood Dale, Bensenville and Elk Grove Village — at the new facility in Cicero.
Cicero officials, who bought the Sportsman's land for $16 million, agreed at a recent town meeting to sell the 35 acres to Wirtz Beverage for $6.5 million and to dish out $13 million in tax increment financing (TIF) dollars to the company, according to town officials. Company officials said the TIF money will be used for roadways, a water tower, site cleanup and other infrastructure improvements.
The company plans to relocate about 1,000 workers to the site from Wirtz's existing facilities. However, a spokeswoman said the company will make an effort to hire local workers for the construction of the building.
Arthur Wirtz, vice president of operations for Wirtz Beverage Illinois, told the Cicero Town Board that the company decided on the new location to provide it with more space.
"We're growing and we've been looking for a site for a while now," said Wirtz.
Wirtz Beverage is part of the Wirtz Corp., which has diversified holdings in real estate, insurance, banking, entertainment and sports, including the Blackhawks.
The company was founded by Wirtz's grandfather, also named Arthur, in 1926.
Anthony Iatarola, an attorney for the company, said the site is just what they were looking for.
"It's just north of Interstate 55 and a few minutes south of Interstate 290," Iatarola told the board. "Those roadways offered us the utmost solution to finding our new facility in the Chicago metropolitan area. We want to be able to call Cicero home for a long time."
Cicero Town President Larry Dominick, who sported a Blackhawks jersey at the meeting at which the land sale was approved, said the site for too long has been "an eyesore."
"With Wirtz coming, I think other businesses will want to build at the site," Dominick said.
The town would like to develop the remaining 33 acres with retail stores.
Sportsman's Park opened as a horse racetrack in 1932 on land that had been used as a dog track. It was the scene of both thoroughbred and harness racing. Sportsman's annual harness meeting was considered one of North America's best.
In 1999, Sportsman's underwent a $70 million makeover that converted it from an 11,000-seat horse track to a 70,000-seat facility that could accommodate auto racing as well as thoroughbred racing. But the facility failed to generate the expected revenue, and Sportsman's days came to a close.
Proposals to redevelop the site included a one unveiled in 2005 that would have included hotels, a convention center, retail stores and an indoor sports and entertainment complex. The $600 million project never got off the ground.
In July 2007, the town began negotiating with The John Buck Co. of Chicago, which wanted to build 68 acres of retail stores and parking. That plan also fell through, but the town still paid $1.5 million for the demolition of the old racecourse stadium.
The Buck Co. deal, however, included a plan to build a new 11-acre outdoor festival park across from the Sportsman's Park site. The $6.8 million festival park was completed in 2008.
The town said the remainder of the deal with Buck Co. fell through because the economy went sour at the time.
Wirtz officials said that as long as town officials move forward with their commitments, the distribution facility will be completed in 2012.
In addition, the company, in keeping with its hockey tradition, also made an agreement with Cicero to build a full-size ice and roller skating rink in the festival park across the street. Company officials said Wirtz Beverage Chairman Rocky Wirtz wanted to give something back to the town and came up with the idea to build the rink.
The construction of the rink will run concurrent with the building project, company officials said.