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Wilson wants talks on stadium lease; Bills owner seeks modest improvements in order to keep a competitive team in Buffalo

Ralph C. Wilson Jr. doesn't want a Taj Mahal for his Buffalo Bills. He's not interested in the field-level patios, martini lounges or nightclub suites that can be found in other AFC East stadiums.

The Bills owner told The Buffalo News he's ready to extend the team's lease agreement with Erie County if fundamental improvements can be made to the 38-year-old stadium that bears his name.

"I'm willing to sign a lease that will keep the team there and keep the team competitive," Wilson said in a phone interview late last week. "We're not looking to have a palace, just a football stadium.

"Some of these places, to me, it's goofy. They have all these fancy restaurants inside. People come to the football game to see the game, not to have a delicious dinner. We want just enough money to stay competitive."

Sports teams often ask taxpayers to fund sparkling new facilities when leases near completion, but Wilson claimed the Bills' stadium will be fine "for the next 10 or 15 years" if properly maintained.

Two sources familiar with the team's thinking said the Bills expect a 10-year lease extension that would coincide with the collective bargaining agreement struck between the National Football League and its players for this season.

Any lease extension will involve substantial help from the Empire State Development Corp. for improvements to the stadium's infrastructure.

While the Bills sound like they have a solid idea about what they want, there also seems to be a disconnect between the team and county about what to do next.

Wilson said the Bills haven't heard from County Executive Chris Collins or the state about starting formal negotiations.

Collins said he has yet to be contacted by the team and is under the impression that Bills treasurer Jeffrey Littman will make the call to move forth. Wilson said Bills Chief Executive Officer Russ Brandon will handle the lease negotiations.

Although the lease is scheduled to expire July 31, 2013, Collins said he is not in a hurry.

"I don't see a sense of urgency at all," he told The News.

Many would consider that a curious sentiment with Collins weeks away from an election and the 92-year-old Wilson not healthy enough to attend today's home opener against the Oakland Raiders. Wilson never has missed an opening day since he founded the team in 1959.

Wilson, Brandon and Collins separately told The News each was confident an extension would get done.

"I've always been optimistic," Collins said. "I feel good about things, but the formal negotiations have not started.

"Everything in due course. The stadium's not going anywhere, and Ralph has stated he has no intention of moving the team."

The Bills' lease agreement with Erie County and New York State is a substantial local issue that gets increasingly tense as Wilson gets older. The team could be even more vulnerable with the NFL's return to Los Angeles -- perhaps as many as two teams -- getting closer to fruition.

The Bills and Erie County preferred to hold off on official lease talks until the NFL reached a collective bargaining agreement with its players. The lockout lasted until late July. Teams scrambled to assemble their rosters and conduct training camps, further delaying talks between the Bills and Erie County.

"We've had a very productive relationship with the county and the state for the past 13 years under the existing deal," Brandon said in an email to The News, "and they have been respectful of the fact that we had other matters that needed to be resolved, particularly the CBA.

"With those matters now behind us, we can focus our attention on the lease discussions. Now that the CBA is in place for 10 years, it provides us the backdrop to have productive discussions on a variety of needs related to the stadium."

Collins said the last time he spoke with the Bills was Aug. 23 at an event to declare Ralph Wilson Stadium a smoke-free venue. Collins said he spoke briefly with Brandon, and they made small talk about the parties getting together soon.

"The Bills wanted to get the season ramped up and get through the preseason," Collins said. "All that's now happened. My expectation would be that some point soon the phone will ring, and we'll get things going.

"But the ball is with them. That's where it is -- or it isn't."

Collins insisted New York State must be heavily involved in any lease agreement and pay for the required structural improvements at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

The Bills' current lease was signed in 1997 and included $63.2 million worth of state-funded capital improvements, about $3 million a year from a "working capital grant" and other state money.

Collins said a similar arrangement would be essential, and noted the state should be obligated. Collins claimed his office's research showed the Bills provided the state with $20 million in direct revenues each year, mainly from taxes on payroll and ticket sales.

"As negotiations would begin and we've all heard the stadium improvements the Bills would request, I would be looking for the state to pick up that bill," Collins said. "That, to me, would be the starting point."

Wilson emphasized the need to refurbish the stadium, which opened in 1973 and underwent major renovations in 1997.

Team sources have indicated much of the work would be structural, improvements that might not be obvious on the exterior but are required. The Bills also remain interested in converting the press box into suites.

"Our stadium is 40 years old," Wilson said. "We've had patchwork jobs. We use the money the state pays us and the county to keep the stadium in one piece. We're going to have to have some money now for improvements.

"I'm not talking about some billion-dollar palace. We're going to have to have some money to improve the stadium for the fans. There are some spots that are crumbling and need to be fixed."

Wilson deferred to Brandon about potential details of the new lease.

And what are the specific needs the Bills have targeted?

"We will deal with things in their appropriate time and place," Brandon responded.

email: tgraham@buffnews.com and mgaughan@buffnews.com