One of the most successful shopping mall developers in the nation – Scott R. Congel – is exploring a potential partnership with billionaire B. Thomas Golisano to purchase the Buffalo Bills in conjunction with a $700 million development of a long-dormant West Seneca plaza that could include a new stadium for the team, according to sources familiar with the situation.
Congel, whose family has long run the Pyramid Cos. that built and manages the Walden Galleria in Cheektowaga, would offer no comment Wednesday when asked if he seeks to buy part of the team. Nor would Golisano. But the sources said Congel is talking about a potential partnership with Golisano, the former owner of the Buffalo Sabres and three-time candidate for governor who continues to express interest in buying the team and keeping it in Western New York.
Still, Congel revealed volumes about his complicated plan for the 55-acre site in West Seneca that could be tweaked to include a 15-acre footprint for a covered stadium – which sources say may or may not feature a retractable roof – and seating capacity in the high 60,000 range.
While emphasizing the preliminary nature of any plans for a stadium, the Syracuse native and former Syracuse University lineman remains committed to a major redevelopment of the former Seneca Mall. He unveiled plans for a mixed-use, public-private mega-project with two hotels, residential apartments, office buildings, retail, a theater, community facilities featuring twin hockey rinks and vast underground parking.
Now a Denver resident, Congel estimated the plan would generate 7,000 construction jobs and more than 2,000 permanent jobs.
Some aspects of his proposal would require public participation, including ownership of some facilities, streets and green space by the Town of West Seneca, as well as the possibility of access ramps to the site from the Thruway and Route 400. That prompts a high level of caution from County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz and West Seneca officials, who question the astronomical numbers associated with the project and government's ability to participate.
But Congel said he is confident in the track record and expertise of his company to develop such a project, adding he knows of no other privately sponsored effort in Western New York history approaching the scale of his proposed Seneca Place.
“It's been a breath of fresh air with County Executive Poloncarz; the talks have been very direct and he understands numbers and business, and the same for Sheila,” he said, referring to West Seneca Supervisor Sheila M. Meegan. “I can't say that's always happened.
After owning the former Seneca Mall property in West Seneca for more than two decades – and passing up other opportunities for development there – Congel said he and his S&R Group that own the parcel feel more enthusiastic than ever about its potential.
He pointed to the confluence of the Thruway, Niagara Thruway and Routes 400 and 219 in the immediate vicinity, and the surge of construction activity throughout the region as reasons to feel bullish about Buffalo.
“It shows you have great assets up here, and people are beginning to realize it,” he said. “For us, who have been here for 25 years and understand this market, this is just the next phase of what we can do here.”
An array of development possibilities has been proposed to his S&R Group over the years, he said, ever since most of the former mall was demolished when big tenants moved to the Walden Galleria owned by his family's Pyramid Cos. But while ideas for big-box stores and theaters offered partial solutions, he said the firm always held out hope for a mega-project because of the location, his firm's ownership of the land, and favorable zoning.
While local officials have long criticized inaction at the site, he said he believes the town is now on board with at least studying the idea.
“It was painful not to do anything,” he said. “We may have some disagreements on some parts, but everyone is now rowing in the same direction.”
Neither Congel nor Golisano is even hinting at any potential partnership, despite several sources indicating that possibility to The News. The central figure in such a team is G. Steven Pigeon, the former Erie County Democratic chairman and political operative with close ties to Golisano dating back more than 20 years.
Pigeon has advised Golisano's three campaigns for governor on the Independence line, was involved in Golisano's purchase of the Buffalo Sabres, his Responsible New York political committee, and his National Popular Vote initiative aiming to reform the electoral college.
Golisano was also recently spotted dining with Bills CEO Russ Brandon at Sinatra's Restaurant in North Buffalo.
Pigeon and longtime business associate Gary R. Parenti also have just formed a lobbying firm that, according to Albany records, has been paid $116,000 by Congel's company to represent it before the Town of West Seneca.
The plan Congel is now formulating involves about 15 acres of the site for the actual stadium, which he said would constitute a separate proposal from the $700 million Seneca Place. He emphasized that the overall development will proceed even if a Bills purchase and subsequent stadium project never comes to fruition.
But he sees a Bills stadium development that would extend far beyond use for eight to 10 football games each year.
“Complemented with Seneca Place, it gives a terrific, year-round entertainment, hospitality and community center that will become a large, hub and spoke for Western New York,” he said.
Indeed, he said the stadium could serve a variety of purposes such as hosting as many as 200 events per year, and be connected to a bustling new development offering a host of other amenities right next door.
“It would be modeled after Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, in the high-60,000 seats, have the ability to expand, and fit Super Bowl criteria,” he said. “And it could host conventions, concerts and expos.”
The key component, he said, is the existing network of super highways already encircling the site. He would need state assistance to convert a little-used rail spur near the site to what he dubs “Buffalo Bills Boulevard,” providing unique all-interstate access to the proposed football field.
“There is hardly a stadium in the country with this kind of access,” he said, adding he is not ready to discuss whether additional properties need to be acquired.
He also labeled as “up in the air” whether his company would build and own the stadium or whether government would asked to participate.
Poloncarz, who met with Congel on Wednesday, said he is intrigued by the Seneca Place proposal but labeled it “very preliminary.” He sees the project stretching out as many seven years into the future, and emphasized that Congel never mentioned the stadium component to him during their meeting.
“The presentation today was not about a stadium,” the county executive said Wednesday. “If there is to be a stadium, that would be Phase 2, and there would be no room after Phase 1 is completed.”
Poloncarz, who has consistently voiced his preference for any new stadium to be located at the current footprint in Orchard Park, said he is a “little skeptical” because of the need for West Seneca to float general obligation bonds.
“How could the Town of West Seneca ever afford $128 million in general obligation bonds?” he asked, referring to the cost of a proposed community center.
Even if the stadium fails to enter the picture, however, Congel said his company feels the time is right for a major project on the site. While market and political conditions prevented the company from developing anything in the past, he said new activity in the region coupled with his own company's evolution prompts the interest.
“We're starting to see Buffalo and Erie County reinventing itself,” he said, pointing to a “national trend” of successful mixed use developments. “We've spent a lot of time studying not just Erie County but all of Western New York and how we can fit into everything going on. There's a resurgence here we haven't seen in 30 years.”
He said Pyramid's Walden Galleria is already one of the top-producing malls in the country, and believes the area can sustain even more activity.
“When you think of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo committing $1 billion to Erie County,” he said of the states “Billion for Buffalo” program, “that's a huge presence that induces great confidence.”
He said the housing offered at the site will appeal to young professionals and empty nesters alike. One hotel proposed for the property would rise 10 stories with retail and restaurants on the ground floor, offering small rooms for less than $90 per night. Another proposed hotel on the sight would offer more conventional room sizes and prices.
Congel said a theatre on the site would offer not just movies but meeting space too.
West Seneca officials are now seriously studying the project, but also emphasize that the plan advanced by the S&R Group is “very preliminary.” And they caution that the immense size and scope of the project may simply overwhelm the suburban town's ability to accommodate it.
West Seneca has nevertheless commissioned a $30,000 study to evaluate the proposal with an eye toward eliminating a longtime eyesore and replacing it with a new and major addition to its tax rolls.
“It's quite an ambitious and exciting proposal,” said West Seneca Councilman Eugene P. Hart. “It's another story if it happens. There are just mind-boggling questions that have to be answered before we can do anything.”
Meegan is also approaching the proposal with caution, though acknowledging it presents “wonderful opportunities.”
“That's why we've taken a step back, to let us be in control of development today and 30 years in the future,” she said. “We're not foolish enough to jump in and sell our soul. But it is super-exciting.”
Part of the proposal includes two community center facilities to be owned by the town at the site, which Congel predicts will cover their bonding costs through revenue from events while providing other economic benefits and giving the town a “great asset.”
But Poloncarz on Wednesday raised further questions. He said Congel is seeking 30 years' worth of tax breaks from the county and its industrial development agency, which the county executive emphatically called “not acceptable.”
“I was a little shocked,” he said. “The most we would do is 15 years, and we don't do hotels or apartment complexes. The truth is, this is not a destination site, and we told him that.
“We need a net economic gain for the community and not just be moving chess pieces from one side of the board to the other,” he added.
Poloncarz emphasized, however, that he remains interested in the project and that the two sides will “continue to talk.”
The idea presents huge obstacles, including highway and utility infrastructure adjustments that Hart estimates might exceed $500 million. In addition, the town is trying to determine just what consequences such a major project might inflict on a suburb with a population of about 45,000 people.
“You could have 15,000 or 16,000 people in and out of the facility each day,” Hart said. “We would have to do major infrastructure work.”
Other questions also abound. Hart noted that the proposal for a potential $128 million community center consumes about 80 percent of West Seneca's bonding ability, leaving little for other capital projects. The town also might be liable for up front “bridge” costs because revenues would be unavailable for several years during construction and start-up.
But problems with payment in lieu of taxes agreements lie at the root of a similar proposal for the Rochester suburb of Irondequoit, where Congel's company failed to redevelop the old Irondequoit Mall into a mixed-use development. Congel and his Bersin Properties bought the now-vacant mall in 2007, and announced plans for a 421-room hotel, 330 condominium units and a 16-screen movie theater as part of a $260 million project, as well as retail, restaurant and office space, and an underground parking garage, according to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.
The newspaper also reported Congel's company failed to pay the town, a school district, several companies and the Monroe County Industrial Development Agency, and owed millions in back taxes and other payments to various government entities and the school district according to a Town of Irondequoit correspondence to him in February..
Irondequoit Supervisor Adam J. Bello, who took office in January, said the town and the Monroe County Industrial Development Agency have now terminated a five year plan for a similar mega-project because Bersin never fulfilled several “milestones” stipulated in their agreement for significant tax breaks.
“Years ago, we had high hopes,” Bello said. “They were new developers who made a lot of promises. But in my view, taxpayers were the only ones who held up their end of the bargain.”
The supervisor said Bersin missed several deadlines for base and supplemental PILOT bills, until it was about $4 million in arrears to various government entities.
“I find it troubling that they have made a number of commitments in exchange for the PILOT agreement, but have made no development on the property,” he said.
Bello said things got so bad at the now-vacant mall that Irondequoit accused the company in town court of building and fire code violations, especially after freezing pipes burst in the vacant facility. The company paid a whopping $100,000 fine.
“My guess is that is one of the largest local court fines in Irondequoit history,” he said.
Congel said Wednesday he still seeks to proceed. He blamed his problems in Irondequoit on the recession and his dispute with a Japanese bank acting as lender. His experience in fighting reluctant lenders on his Destiny USA project in Syracuse shows he can counter such lending problems after he won several court battles.
“We intend to go forward and get it done,” he said.