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Latest Falls vision involves football Off-the-cuff comments from Jim Kelly give rise to the notion of the 'Niagara Bills'

Niagara Falls is a place bad ideas go to die.

An underground aquarium. A Wizard of Oz theme park.

And now the proposed home of an existing NFL team already just 30 miles to the south.

Glenn Fitzgerald, a sales and marketing manager from Williamsville, thinks the Cataract City is the ideal location for the Buffalo Bills, a professional football franchise viewed by many as bound one day for a bigger market where it can make more money.

Fitzgerald believes a move to the Falls would make the team better able to draw from Southern Ontario and Toronto, as well as Western New York and the Rochester area. He has pitched the idea as a solution to keep the Bills in the region for the long term, after owner Ralph Wilson passes from the scene and the team goes up for sale.

He thinks it's a good idea in the short term for the Niagara County Legislature to go on record in support of the notion.

Wednesday, lawmakers put off a decision until they can reach out to counterparts in Erie County. Meanwhile, many business, government and elected leaders declined to comment for this story, underscoring the question-able feasibility of a Niagara Bills team.

The Bills in Niagara Falls? Seriously?

A look at the economics alone reveals some significant barriers.

When the Bills are sold, the buyer may have to fork over close to $1 billion, maybe more.

The Falls population has fallen by half during the last 50 years, to somewhere around 50,000, and the city's poverty rate rivals that of Buffalo. Despite that, and because the Falls is an international tourist destination, speculators have gobbled up swaths of land in the city, driving up real estate prices for what might be the most desirable properties for a stadium.

After the land was purchased, then somebody would have to pay for a stadium -- and taxpayer dollars would almost certainly figure into the mix. The cost of a new, modern stadiums is no drop in the bucket. The price tag of the new Dallas Cowboys stadium: $1.1 billion.

So it's hard to imagine the Bills in the Falls -- but can you blame a guy for dreaming?

After all, it was former Bills quarterback and Hall of Famer Jim Kelly who may have fanned the Falls flame. At an August rally in the days before a preseason game in Toronto, Kelly told reporters, "I think in the near future, we have to build a stadium closer [to Toronto], maybe in Niagara Falls."

He continued, "Why not Niagara Falls? They definitely have the land to do it. It makes sense not only with the tourism -- one of the wonders of the world -- and it's 45 minutes closer for Canadians."

At the time, Kelly said he opposed any name change for the team.

Kelly's former agent, Roger Trevino, is the executive vice president of Niagara Falls Redevelopment, a private investment firm in the Cataract City that was given the rights to 142 prime acres in the city, in the shadow of the Seneca Niagara Casino.

NFR is also backed by Manhattan billionaire Howard Milstein, who has previously tried to buy the Washington Redskins and the newest Cleveland Browns franchise, both in the late '90s.

Trevino said he wanted it "perfectly clear" that he has no connection whatsoever to Fitzgerald's effort, nor is he involved "on any level with the present effort."

A number of factors, including economics and politics, stand in the way of the proposal happening, Trevino said.

"While it's a great idea for the water cooler, to even think that this is close to happening, there are far too many moving parts to even consider," he said, "not the least of which is that the last time I looked, Mr. Wilson still owns the team and is quite capable of driving his own ship and his own destiny.

"Next, there is the issue of politics of Erie versus Niagara County and coming to grips with the overwhelming ratio of influence that resides in Erie County -- called votes. They have a million people, we have somewhere south of 250,000. Besides that, there is the present state of the global, national, state and local economies, so I'm not even sure that this is a good time, economically speaking."

"Selfishly speaking," he concluded, "it's a great idea and I'd love to see it in Niagara County, but I think it's a premature discussion."

When asked about the Niagara Bills idea, Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster said the city is not actively pursuing the Bills move and has not received any proposal from the Bills organization, nor is it trying to lure any business to the city already within this area.

But if the Bills wanted to talk, "of course we would talk to them," Dyster said. "I regard the Bills as a great regional asset."

The Bills did not respond to a request to comment by this story's deadline.

Fitzgerald, who has started a Web site called www.niagarabills.com, has said he has begun the process of reaching out to Bills management about his idea.

His idea is modeled after the New England Patriots, which used to be the Boston Patriots before the team moved to Foxborough, Mass. The name and location gave the team a regional appeal, Fitzgerald said.

The Bills' lease with Erie County for Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park expires in 2012, and Wilson has announced that the team will be sold after his death.

So why can't someone buy it and move the team to the Falls?

One of the many challenges to making the proposal work would be handling the traffic from tens of thousands of fans converging on a stadium, David Rosenwasser, former head of the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp., said in an e-mail.

Economics don't stand in the project's favor, either, Rosenwasser said.

"Last time I looked, the resources of the county were quite modest, and the price of a new state-of-the-art stadium is not modest at all," he said. "No franchise would expect to move to Niagara County without the county or some governmental entity paying for a new stadium."

Rosenwasser also said he doesn't believe there is "any real critical mass" of people who think it would be a good fit.

He pointed to another small-market franchise with a more storied history than the Bills.

"I lived in Green Bay for almost a decade," he said. "I can tell you that Niagara County is no Green Bay."

Michael Gentile, an assistant professor in the College of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Niagara University, said he sees a lot of hurdles to clear before the idea could work.

The first consideration would be building a new stadium, one that would probably cost in the billion-dollar range, said Gentile, who teaches a course in sports management.

There may be some taxpayer support involved, leaving less money available for things like roads, bridges and infrastructure, which also would likely be needed in this case.

Persuading anyone to spend public dollars in Niagara County would be "a hard sell," he said.

And with only a relatively few events planned for the site -- perhaps eight or 10 games a year -- the ultimate long-range benefit is questionable.

That is, unless a comparable use could be found for that size of a venue, though that's difficult to pinpoint, said Gentile, a Falls native.

Another idea would be to build the stadium over a section of deteriorating city blocks, which Gentile believes would help address a lot of needs in the city. But that choice faces the same shortcomings as any other site.

The Bills' facility in Orchard Park also includes the Ralph C. Wilson Fieldhouse, for which a replacement in the Falls may be necessary, he said.

A sports fan at heart, Gentile said he would be fascinated if the idea was ever brought to bear.

"In terms of the economy here," he said, "no idea's a bad idea at this point in time."

e-mail: abesecker@buffnews.com

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