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Lease talks await study of The Ralph

The Buffalo Bills are proud of the seating bowl inside Ralph Wilson Stadium and the tailgating experience outside.

Upgrades to everything else at The Ralph must be examined, though, before the Bills and Erie County can move forward on a lease extension.

The Bills have hired Populous, an architectural firm based in Kansas City, Mo., to conduct a study of the Orchard Park stadium's infrastructure. The study will determine how much the improvements would cost.

Populous began the study about four months ago and, according to senior executive and former Bills linebacker Scott Radecic, hopes to be done by the end of the season.

Until then, the Bills and Erie County can't extend the lease because they won't know how much money they will request from the state. The price tag will be in the tens of millions and likely well past $100 million.

"Cost is an unknown and could be in a wide range," County Executive Chris Collins said. "I'm expecting New York State to pay for these improvements. But you can't sit down and have meaningful negotiations until this study is complete."

Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. told The Buffalo News last month that he thought the stadium would be adequate for "the next 10 or 15 years" if properly maintained.

Two sources familiar with the club's thinking said the Bills expect to sign a 10-year lease extension that would coincide with the collective-bargaining agreement the National Football League and its players achieved this summer.

Collins emphasized that the state's sizable commitment would be worthwhile. He said research done by his office indicates that the Bills provide the state with $20 million in direct revenues each year, mainly from taxes on payroll and ticket sales.

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

Most improvements to the 38-year-old stadium would be basic and largely unnoticeable to fans. Russ Brandon, CEO of the Bills, said the areas for upgrading are "not the sexiest elements you'd think of."

"This stadium is beyond special," Brandon said. "This stadium has the best sightlines in the NFL, bar none. The sightlines and the great experience we have outside the stadium are the foundation of what we are."

Brandon and Radecic seemed in agreement about the study's mission: Identify ways to improve basic functionality and safety.

"It's not about a new image or an iconic statement or the exterior design," said Radecic, who started at inside linebacker for the Bills from 1987 through 1989 and played for the Kansas City Chiefs and Indianapolis Colts over 12 seasons. "The focus is on fan improvements. How do we optimize the experience for them?

"The bowl is great. It's intimate and on top of the field. But once you leave the seating bowl, the building shows its age. We're looking at different options and ways to utilize what's there now and to make it better and, finally, 'What does that cost?' Then the Bills will be able to make a decision as to what's best for them."

Populous, formerly known as HOK Sports, designed Coca-Cola Field downtown and some of the most prominent arenas around the world. The firm's lengthy lineup includes Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Jacobs Field in Cleveland, Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Heinz Field in Pittsburgh and Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.

While Radecic praised Ralph Wilson Stadium's seating bowl, he noted that the fan experience is lacking elsewhere.

He said that the concourses should be wider, there should be more communal areas for fans to gather, and an adjustment should be made to the proper number and locations of restrooms and concession stands to prevent fans from clogging the corridors.

The Bills previously have considered converting the press box into more luxury suites.

"We're looking for ways to enhance what's considered more of an acceptable game-day experience," Radecic said.

"We want to improve the whole sequence of driving into your parking spot, coming into the stadium through the gate and circulating through the stadium."

Collins was criticized last month for not being proactive enough in lease negotiations after telling The News he was waiting to hear from the Bills. He said the study is an elementary part of the process.

"The Bills, the NFL and the county all are on the same page," Collins said. "We expect a successful conclusion to these lease negotiations. My optimism has never wavered and still is the same today."

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