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AREA OFFICIALS ARE OPTIMISTIC OVER REPORTS OF RIGAS TAKEOVER

Renegotiating the Buffalo Sabres' lease at Marine Midland Arena would be a lot more palatable with John J. Rigas in charge of the team, city and Erie County officials suggested Monday.

That's especially true if Rigas can bring financial and managerial stability to the franchise, they added.

The Sabres have asked New York State, Erie County and the City of Buffalo to redo the lease in a way that could save the financially strapped team $6 million a year.

While some officials weren't thrilled with the idea of renegotiating a 30-year lease after only 15 months, those reservations were overshadowed by their optimism about Rigas' impending takeover of the team.

Here's what's driving that optimism:

The belief that Rigas, founder of Adelphia Communications Corp., will solidify the team's fractured ownership and end the constant tug-of-war over the franchise's direction.

The expectation that new ownership will end the type of public-relations fiascoes that sent Coach Ted Nolan, star center Pat LaFontaine and General Manager John Muckler out of town.

The hope that Adelphia and the arena can unite to bring more high-profile events to the facility and showcase downtown Buffalo to a regional television audience.

The feeling that a healthy Sabres team playing in a viable arena eventually will trigger other development projects in the waterfront area.

"I think it's been a long time in waiting for the Rigas family to take over," Common Council President James W. Pitts said. "I think John Rigas will bring a lot of stability to the organization."

Within that framework, Pitts and others didn't balk Monday at the idea of renegotiating the lease.

The Sabres argue that the economics of the National Hockey League have changed drastically since the lease was finalized in 1995.

"We're saying, 'Hey, the economics are different. Can't we do this in a different way that won't hurt you and will help us a lot?' " Sabres President Lawrence Quinn said Monday.

City, county and state officials all seem willing to listen.

"I think the city would entertain a renegotiation if it was part of a deal that basically put the Sabres organization and the Marine Midland Arena on sound financial footing," said Pitts, a key figure in the original lease deal.

"One of the predicates for our willingness to renegotiate was to see that the team had long-term stability," said Richard M. Tobe, a spokesman for County Executive Gorski. "The (ownership) arrangements being discussed, that we're not privy to, might offer that."

State officials also have indicated their willingness to discuss a possible renegotiation.

The Sabres are asking the state to make the biggest concession: to forego the repayment of the $25 million it invested in the arena. The city and county are being asked to accept annual fixed payments instead of taking their shares of the arena's profits.

City officials realize the facts of life in keeping a major-league team in a small market, like Buffalo.

Skyrocketing salaries and widening revenue gaps between large- and small-market teams have put added pressure on state and local governments to come up with additional concessions.

"We have to fight to keep them here," Fillmore Council Member David A. Franczyk said.

City leaders realize the possible alternative to revising the lease.

"The worst thing I can imagine, two years from now, is that Marine Midland Arena is there with nothing going on there," Franczyk said. "You can't have the biggest white elephant in the United States in Marine Midland Arena."

Pitts, who has been critical of Sabres management, believes new team leadership could turn the arena into a more vibrant magnet for other events and attractions downtown.

"I think the turmoil and the problems you have at the management level have to change," Pitts said. "If they don't change, I think there's a very real possibility we could lose the team."

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