Terry Pegula’s emergence as the new owner of the Buffalo Bills brings new focus to the search for a new home for the football team – and it’s centered on downtown Buffalo.
Pegula has not spoken publicly about his preferences for either a new or renovated stadium for the Bills.
But Pegula’s pending purchase of the team likely gives a leg up to potential stadium sites downtown, near First Niagara Center, where Pegula’s Buffalo Sabres play, and close to the HarborCenter hotel and hockey complex that now is under construction, sources said.
“You’d think it certainly improves the chances of a downtown stadium,” said Larry Quinn, the former president of the Buffalo Sabres, who believes that a downtown stadium could be a showcase for the fast-growing HarborCenter/Canalside area.
A new downtown stadium near First Niagara Center would allow Pegula to build on the sports-related hub that already is growing at the foot of Main Street and help him leverage the $172 million he is spending to build the HarborCenter complex, which will feature two ice rinks and a 205-room Marriott hotel, as well as a 13,000-square-foot sports-themed restaurant and retail space.
Game-day traffic would help fill the hotel on football weekends and bring tens of thousands of fans downtown to potentially shop and eat at the HarborCenter. Attaching a convention center to the stadium complex, which would fill a need to upgrade the city’s major meeting space, would expand the spin-off, while also adding significantly to its price tag.
Developer Carl Paladino is pushing a site stretching roughly from South Park Avenue to Louisiana Street to Ohio Street as a potential location for a downtown stadium, which he said would give a boost to the city’s hotels and restaurants.
The site, some of which is owned by Paladino’s Ellicott Development Co., currently is a mix of vacant land and industrial properties.
“Put it in downtown, where we have all of these other venues,” Paladino said. “Then I can justify the public investment.”
Paladino said he has not discussed his idea with the Pegulas or state officials. “Today just opened the gates,” he said.
But Paladino said the site could be served by public transportation by extending the Metro Rail along an existing right of way that extends through the site.
“You could not have a more secure and established venue than downtown Buffalo,” Paladino said.
“You’ve got the arena, the casino, all the Canalside stuff nearby. It’s just a natural,” he said. “It would inspire all kinds of development.”
Also unknown are Pegula’s thoughts on the less-expensive option – backed by Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz – to do major renovations to Ralph Wilson Stadium, rather than to build an entirely new stadium. The appeal of that option, with its lower price tag, would be that it likely would require a smaller upfront investment by both Pegula and state and local government, and it also could result in smaller ticket and suite price increases than with a brand new stadium.
“The question is the overall strategy,” said Ted Fay, a sports management professor at SUNY Cortland. “Do you keep what you have and make some improvements, or do you look at a more centralized location in downtown Buffalo?”
Consultants hired by the state to study potential stadium sites have narrowed the list to four potential locations, all within Erie County, The Buffalo News reported last month. The consultants’ study, which is still being finalized, looked at 13 potential sites from Batavia to Niagara Falls, as well as the possibility of doing a major renovation of Ralph Wilson Stadium. The report, while not binding on the new Bills owner, could be a road map for the team and the NFL as it considers different stadium options.
Now that Pegula has won the bidding for the team – subject to league approval – the stadium search is expected to become much more focused, shifting from a far-reaching review meant to consider a wide range of potential options for a handful of potential bidders for the Bills to one that will be shaped by what Pegula wants and thinks is best, for the team and his own interests.
“It keeps coming back to the same thing: What are the preferences of the new owner,” said Michael Joseph, a local developer who serves on a high-level panel formed last year to evaluate proposals for a new Bills stadium. The 20-member New Stadium Working Group, made up of representatives appointed by the state, the county and the Bills to study where – or whether – to build a new stadium, has met only once since it was created in April.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has been backing a new stadium for the Bills. The league believes that even after $130 million in renovations that were done this year, the stadium still can’t produce the kind of revenue that new facilities in bigger markets are generating. Teams can charge higher ticket prices in newer stadiums, which also have more corporate suites and luxury seating areas for wealthier fans, adding to the revenue.
The Bills had the league’s second-lowest ticket prices last year, which is a drawback in the eyes of other owners in a league where 80 percent of its revenue is shared among the 32 NFL teams.
“They need new revenue streams,” said Jordan Levy, a venture capitalist and member of the stadium panel.
But a new stadium also comes with questions, including how much money the public sector would be expected to contribute to the costs and whether the economy – and the team’s fan base – in the Buffalo Niagara region can absorb the higher ticket and suite prices that would come with a new facility.
“They’ll have their own ideas, and they’ll have to put money in,” Levy said. “Are they prepared to put up $500 million for a new stadium, because that’s what it’s going to take,” even with partial funding from government and league sources.
Other potential sites that have been mentioned include an outer harbor facility proposed by the Greater Buffalo Sports and Entertainment Complex for a complex that would consist of a 72,000-seat retractable-roof stadium, convention center, sports museum and retail space. Its business model calls for $1 billion in private financing.
Developer Scott R. Congel has proposed a Bills stadium as part of a $700 million project that would include housing, offices, theaters, recreational facilities and parking on the 55-acre former Seneca Mall site in West Seneca.
“There’s a million options,” said Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, the president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and a member of the stadium working group.
But with the Bills in the early stages of a new lease to play at Ralph Wilson Stadium and Pegula not viewed as a threat to move the team, Gallagher-Cohen said there’s no need to rush a decision.
“We have plenty of time to do this the right way,” she said.