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BORN-AGAIN STADIUM
BILLS SET TO SHOW OFF $53 MILLION IN IMPROVEMENTS

It looks different, both outside and in. It sounds different, too -- louder and clearer. And it's brighter, both in the previously tomb-like concourses as well as in the seating bowl.

Built around a hole in the ground 27 years ago, Ralph Wilson -- nee Rich -- Stadium is reborn Saturday as the Bills take the wraps off nearly $53 million worth of improvements that transformed the facility from spartan to state-of-the-art.

"This is going to be in the top three of the open-air venues and the best of the old renovated stadiums," said Bill Munson, Bills vice president for operations. "Versus spending $450 million on a new facility, this is going to be right up there with all the newer facilities."

NFL Executive Vice President Roger Goodell, a Jamestown native, came away impressed from his tour of the reconfigured stadium.

"They've done a spectacular job of making renovations . . . in such a way that they look like they were planned for the facility," he said. "It doesn't look like pieces were done all over. The stadium looks complete when you walk in there and feels complete."

The changes shaved the stadium's capacity from 80,024 to 75,339 while at the same time adding millions to the Bills' bottom line. State and Erie County taxpayers footed the $53 million bill.

The seating reduction was accomplished by adding expensive seating areas that the Bills said were needed for the team to remain competitive in an era when other NFL teams are adding pricey new suites and seats.

When the Bills play their final exhibition game against the Pittsburgh Steelers Saturday night, the hundreds of businesses and thousands of fans who ponied up for suite leases and personal seat licenses finally will get a chance to see what their money bought.

"I think their jaws are going to drop," Munson said.

As the stadium's new $1.1 million sound system played the Eagles' "Desperado" -- a test that easily moved the music across the stadium and to the upper deck's upper reaches, with none of the echo of the old PA -- Munson toured the renovations. Among the distinctive changes:

* The 76 "dugout suites" at the top of the first level of seating. Bursting from previously dormant areas at the top of the lower level of seating, these suites -- only 40 rows from the field -- feature a greenhouse-type front with glass windows that can be opened or closed.

* Two new levels on top of the Goal Line and Red Zone clubs, the two suites that loom over the corners next to the administration building. They are regional clubs pitched to satellite markets the team has targeted: Rochester and Southern Ontario.

* New club level suites in the stadium's second level. The changes aren't easily visible from a distance, but they are significant. First-of-a-kind heated seats promise to keep fans warmer in winter weather. And if it's too miserable, they can head back to the huge clubs, featuring special restrooms, bars and food, and watch the game on TV.

* Four new restroom towers, two on each side, that will cut down the time and effort that upper level fans needed to use the older bathrooms below them. A new walkway runs along the top of the upper level stands, connecting the bathrooms on each side and giving fans a gathering space. The Bills said the towers increase bathroom capacity 35 percent.

* More gathering spaces at the base of the upper levels, on the roof of the new club suites. Eventually, they could house fan-interactive games and tent parties.

* Easier access to the upper level, via new ramps that are nearly double the width of the older ones. And new coating on many of the steps that will reduce slips and leaks below.

* New seats installed along the sidelines in the lower seating level.

Not only is there more to see, but fans will see it in a whole new light.

All of the lamps illuminating the field and the stands from the light towers have been replaced, their intensity brightened. And the lights underneath the stands in the concessions and bathroom areas also are upgraded, eliminating what Munson termed a "cave effect."

All these changes kept 3,000 workers busy since the start of January, when the massive renovation got off to a sputtering start. For the first two weeks of the project, snow hampered workers during the winter's only prolonged spell of bad weather.

"It was something we didn't expect to deal with, but it's something we had a plan to deal with," said Scott Castilone, vice president of preconstruction with ADF Construction of Amherst, which managed the construction project.

Contingency plans were one of the secrets to completing the extensive renovations in what, by construction industry standards, was a compressed time frame. Normally a project of such magnitude takes at least 12 months. The Bills had eight.

Another was the cooperation of the subcontractors and unions, something ADF president Sam Savarino said was essential to the company bringing the project in on time and within budget.

"We were conducting an orchestra not of our own choosing, but all the contractors here performed admirably," he said. One even installed a temporary plant on the site to make pre-cast concrete panels when it was discovered the panels couldn't be bought from a factory in time.

The heated seats also were custom-made for the stadium by American Seating. A heated coil runs through the seat bottom and lower seat back. There are individual on-off controls under each seat, plus sensors that make sure there are no overheated fannies.

"Your first impression is the surface will feel cool, but as your body warmth works in conjunction with the heated seat, your temperature rises," said American Seating's Keith McDowell, who said the seats are the first electrically heated stadium seats.

Fans will also taste changes. Sportservice has sunk $4 million into new equipment, which will allow Mark Miller, the general manager of the company's stadium operations, to spice up what had been a boring bill of fare.

"We got about 27 of the 38 concessions facilities redone," Miller said. French fries, hamburgers and grilled chicken sandwiches have been added to the menu and beverage dispensers have been moved out to the counter for quicker service.

"What we've been able to do is make things a little bit more workable for our staff to get the products to the guests a lot faster," he said.

And of course, the suites get even more food options, everything from ribs to baked ziti.

The Bills realize a transition period is needed as their fans figure out a new seat-numbering system and new foot traffic patterns.

"It's going to take a year for people to get used to the change," Munson said.

Once the fans see what has been done, though, the Bills think there will be few complaints. So does the NFL's Goodell.

"I don't think there's a better place to watch a game, from a fan's perspective," he said. "It's a wonderful place."

What's new

The $53 million renovation of Wilson Stadium includes:

* New sideline seats in lower seating level
* Four restroom towers
* New second level of end-zone club suites
* Individually controlled heated seats in new club level
* New suites only 40 rows from the field
* Wider ramps to upper decks
* Higher intensity lights
* Improved sound system

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