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Erie County is on the verge of taking over red-ink-stained Dunn Tire Park from the City of Buffalo, and an announcement could come before the ceremonial first pitch reaches home plate on Opening Day in April.

Serious takeover talks have been under way for months among the city, county and representatives of Rich Entertainment Group, the Rich Products subsidiary that owns the Buffalo Bisons, several sources confirmed.

"There's no doubt that this is on our front burner," County Executive Joel A. Giambra said, though he would not discuss specifics. "I've had personal discussions with the Rich family and with their representatives. I'm very pleased with those discussions."

The deal, though still incomplete, appears to offer advantages for the three parties involved, sources said late last week.

The city, while still expected to pay the debt service that ends after 2006, would not have to pay yearly operating losses and capital-improvement costs for the 13-year-old stadium.

Dunn Tire Park has become a drain on the city budget, costing taxpayers more than $1 million a year in operating losses and debt service during the past few years. Under the new deal, county taxpayers will pick up any operating deficits.

The Bisons no longer will be criticized for city taxpayers' subsidizing their hefty profits, which averaged at least $1 million a year in their first 11 years downtown. The city's ticket surcharge also would be eliminated.

And Giambra, who forged close ties with the Rich family from his days as a Niagara District Common Council member, can boast that the agreement helps fulfill his campaign pledge to regionalize government services and consolidate costs.

Giambra, who stressed those themes during his 1999 campaign, said he views Dunn Tire Park as a regional asset.

Demographic research done by the Bisons indicates that the team draws fans from across Western New York, with most ballpark patrons living outside the city, according to Jonathan A. Dandes, executive vice president of Rich Entertainment.

So what do county taxpayers get out of the proposed deal?

In keeping with Giambra's bid to regionalize and consolidate, the county may be able to increase revenue at the downtown ballpark, with a more aggressive marketing campaign to attract non-baseball events.

The county's fairly modest new costs under this agreement could be paid for out of its tobacco-settlement money, sources suggested.

Better opportunities

Some insiders believe a county takeover of the ballpark also will benefit the facility. The current lease, which runs at least through March 2008, can be extended by the Bisons until 2018.

For one thing, Dunn Tire Park will not rely on the cash-strapped city for long-term capital improvements. In addition, several sources suggested that Giambra's close ties to the Rich family could foster a more favorable working relationship.

Last spring, city and county officials were concerned about the team's reluctance even to discuss lease modifications. But earlier this week, Dandes said Rich Entertainment has been consistent in trying to make sure any takeover would benefit all parties.

"This hasn't been an issue of trying to gain leverage," he said. "It's a matter of making sure that everyone stays whole."

Sources said the talks could not be characterized as a formal renegotiation of Rich Entertainment's ballpark lease, but they indicated that some discussions have centered on certain lease provisions.

Dandes stressed the importance of addressing the ballpark's long-term capital needs in any takeover deal. Rich Entertainment already has invested about $10 million in the facility and will spend more than $500,000 in the coming season on concession improvements, restaurant improvements and other upgrades, he said.

Design consultants, Dandes added, reviewed the physical condition of Dunn Tire Park last year.

"You have to remember that over 10 million people have gone through the park over 13 years," he said. "Enhancements are going to be needed to keep it up to date. The success of the team is dependent on the future condition of this ballpark."

Opening with promise

So much has changed since that windy, drizzly day in April 1988 when Pilot Field -- its original name -- opened in almost storybook fashion.

A sellout crowd -- the first of 22 that season -- watched a stylish left-hander named Jimmy Griffin throw out the first pitch. Bisons catcher Tom Prince later smashed a real pitch over the left-field wall (and almost onto Oak Street) in the Bisons' 1-0 win. And on a day when it was easy to dream and anything seemed possible, the prospect of major-league baseball wafted through the crowd.

Thirteen years later, the outlook is different. Pilot Field has changed names twice, to North AmeriCare Park and now Dunn Tire Park. The dream of major-league baseball has vanished. So have the sellout crowds and the city's operating profits.

Attendance dropped sharply since the heyday of Bison baseball, less than 10 years ago.

The Bisons led all of minor-league baseball for their first 12 seasons, a remarkable feat, reaching their peak of more than 1.2 million paid fans in 1991. That figure has dropped steadily, to less than 680,000 last year. Experts have said they expect the attendance to settle somewhere in the 500,000 to 800,000 range.

The ballpark's image has been tarnished a bit. But it's far from a white elephant.

More than 12 million fans sat in its bright red seats in the stadium's first 13 seasons. It remains a downtown asset, still serviceable, if not spanking new.

Eight years of deficits

It's clear, as Dunn Tire Park prepares to move into Erie County's hands, that the downtown stadium's cost to taxpayers is going down rather steeply, fueled by a marked decrease in debt payments.

For example, the principal and interest on the original debt cost about $744,000 last year. That figure drops to $190,000 this year and ultimately to zero in 2007.

At the same time, the ballpark has registered eight consecutive years of operating deficits, including a $299,000 cash loss in the fiscal year ending last March 31 and another $312,000 projected cash loss in the current fiscal year.

Still, the steep drop in the debt-service figure means that the total taxpayer cost has gone down more than 50 percent in the past year, from just over $1 million to slightly more than $500,000, according to city budget figures.

The heaviest expense in the coming years is expected to come in capital-improvement costs.

In a world where municipally subsidized sports palaces help owners maximize their profits, Dunn Tire Park has reached middle age. And that means more aches and pains -- or in this case, capital improvements.

It's clear that the city-county deal would relieve the city of the capital-improvement costs.

"For us, the chief benefit is we could eliminate the need for bond issues for capital improvements," said James B. Milroy, the city's budget director.

What's unclear is how those capital-improvement costs would be split between Erie County and Rich Entertainment.

Ticket surcharge eliminated

On the minus side, the city would lose the ticket surcharge it collects from the Bisons, but that's considerably less than the costs that would be saved. The city collected $84,004 in Bison ticket surcharges last fiscal year.

Though a number of technical issues still are being negotiated, the most serious impediments to a county takeover of the 21,050-seat downtown ballpark are close to being resolved, City Hall sources said.

But Giambra and Dandes stressed that there's still work to be done before any deal is finalized. Dandes noted that the $44 million stadium is technically owned by the state, with the city being the primary lease-holder. He said the state -- as well as the County Legislature and the Buffalo Common Council -- would have to approve all changes.

"There's quite a legal trail that has to be followed," Dandes said. "But there's no question that we and the county executive would like to get this done."

Vincent J. LoVallo, chief of staff to Mayor Anthony M. Masiello, said city and county officials have been meeting weekly for more than three months to discuss consolidation.

"We're still working on resolving a few issues, but we're definitely close to seeing the transfer," LoVallo said.

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