Share this article

print logo

HORNELL A HOTBED OF BILLS BACKERS

Like the Buffalo Bills, this small Southern Tier city has had its dramatic ups and downs.

Railroad once was king here, employing some 3,000 people in the 1950s. But the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad pulled out in the 1970s, devastating the local economy. Now, a European company manufacturing high-speed transit cars already has brought 600 jobs to town, and Wal-Mart and Wegmans opened up shop here two years ago.

Hornell is back, and it's one of the staples of the Buffalo Bills' new commitment to regionalize their franchise.

A small city nestled in the rolling foothills of the Southern Tier, Hornell has fewer residents than the Village of Hamburg.

It also will have a pair of luxury boxes in the remodeled football stadium in Orchard Park, starting next year.

Two 15-seat suites will be merged to form the Steuben Club, which may as well be known as the Hornell Club. Hornell-area residents already have bought 24 seats -- at $3,500 per seat per year -- with pledges for the remaining six seats. The $3,500 figure includes game ticket, transportation, food and drink.

That means that a city of about 10,000 residents -- roughly 22,000 people live in the greater Hornell area -- will be investing more than $100,000 per year to help keep the Bills in Buffalo.

And that's from an area that sits 100 miles southeast of Buffalo, a 100-mile drive across mostly two-lane roads.

With two days until the Dec. 1 deadline to sell $11 million in luxury seats, the Bills seem close to a commitment to keep the team here at least through 2003, despite the sense of urgency that still surrounds the sales effort. The sales were around $10.7 million Friday.

The Bills are holding a "blowout rally" from 2 to 8 p.m. today at the stadium, and a final night of stadium tours tentatively has been scheduled for Monday.

If the Bills stay, they'll be looking to Hornell as a model for regionalizing the franchise.

"Hornell exemplifies the future of the franchise," said Erland E. Kailbourne of Fleet Bank, chairman of the Business Backs the Bills Committee.

"We must make communities like that feel they are a very important part of the Bills franchise," Kailbourne added. "Historically, the focus of the franchise has been in Erie and Niagara counties. We must reach out to other parts of the state, western Pennsylvania and southern Ontario."

The long-term viability of the Bills in Buffalo may depend on three factors: reaching out geographically, solidifying the close new alliance with the Buffalo business community and providing a more fan-friendly Bills organization.

The Steuben Club joins the Chemung Club as the Southern Tier's second regional club at the stadium. The Bills also are working with groups in St. Catharines, Ont., Niagara County and Chautauqua County; the formation of the Chautauqua Club could be announced Monday.

Hornell always has been a hotbed of Bills support. Some 500 to 1,000 fans from the Hornell area regularly drive to Bills games.

"We have a lot of people who are absolutely avid fans. But because we're 100 miles away, we thought we were out of the loop," said James W. Griffin, the president of the Hornell Chamber of Commerce and executive director of the city's Industrial Development Agency.

"I think if we can do it here, it can be duplicated in a lot of other areas with a little effort," he added. "There are a lot of hotbeds of support within 100 miles (of Buffalo), and I think they need to reach out to them."

The wooing of Hornell is a fairly typical story of how the business world works.

Kailbourne, a native of nearby Wellsville, has known Griffin for years. And just about anyone who has crossed paths with Kailbourne has gotten a friendly phone call in the last few months.

As the Bills and the business committee worked with leaders throughout Steuben County, Kailbourne's "Three Amigos," including Bills vice president Bill Munson and former player Ed Rutkowski, flew to Hornell three times in the last month and a half to seal the deal.

In return for their support, the Bills have offered Steuben Club members a few perks. Each got an authentic NFL football signed by a Bills star. There also will be player appearances and Bills memorabilia that local agencies can use in their fund-raising.

For example, Griffin's wife, Cindy, president of the Hornell Area Humane Society, already has a Doug Flutie-signed helmet expected to fetch $1,000 for that organization.

"I think people here appreciated that the Bills reached out to our area and said, 'Give us a hand,' " Griffin said. "I don't think they ever felt a part of it before."

Griffin used several sales pitches with local business leaders, including the desire to keep the Bills in Western New York, the opportunity for business people to network with each other and the chance to use the seats for employee incentives.

"But it's also pride," he said. "People in Hornell have always had pride in themselves, and they relate to the Bills, with all the ups and downs the Bills have had."

There are no comments - be the first to comment