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State wants protection in case of move

ALBANY - Talks between the Cuomo administration and the Buffalo Bills over a new stadium lease were like a roller-coaster ride last week, but two developments offered optimism for a deal.

The first was a meeting in Manhattan on Friday between just state and county officials to get on the same page as they negotiate what to offer and what to demand from the Bills in the new lease.

But the more promising sign might have been that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo spoke twice within 24 hours to Jeffrey C. Littmann, the Bills treasurer and key adviser to owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr.

After those talks, pessimism that the Cuomo administration expressed earlier in the week about team officials' resolve to keep the Bills in Buffalo seemed to subside.

"Now we feel there is room to work and that there is good faith on both sides," a state official said Saturday morning.

For their part, Bills officials also seemed optimistic Saturday, citing recent communications with Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy.

"Our sole focus remains to work toward a mutually agreed-upon deal that is fair for all parties, and we remain optimistic that we will achieve our goal," Bills CEO Russ Brandon said in a statement to The News. "Our commitment to this goal has never wavered, and we were pleased to hear on Friday directly from Lt. Governor Duffy of the state's and county's commitment as well. We truly appreciate the joint efforts and commitment of the time and talent that is being put forth by both the county and the state, and we are prepared and looking forward to resuming the negotiating process."

This was all a far cry from Wednesday, when senior Cuomo administration officials said they were discouraged because of what they had heard behind closed doors: that the Bills would be more valuable in places such as Los Angeles or Toronto.

The concerns were heightened because of the aging Wilson's health problems and the possibility the team could be under new ownership in the not-too-distant future.

"We're not there yet on the commitment and taxpayer protection, in my opinion," Cuomo responded when asked Wednesday whether he believed the Bills have shown a serious indication to work out a deal to stay in Buffalo. It was one of the few times he has spoken about the lease negotiations.

Cuomo even has offered to fly to Wilson's Michigan home to prod along the negotiations, once Wilson's health permits.

Then on Friday, Duffy and Deputy County Executive Richard Tobe, a top negotiator for the county, met in Manhattan to get on the same page about the negotiations; Bills officials were not present.

By Saturday morning, after Cuomo had twice spoken with Littmann, administration officials were suddenly depicting, if not movement, at least a warming in negotiations. Gone was the theme from mid-week that the Bills negotiators were not giving fundamental assurances about their overall resolve to keep the team in Buffalo.

"We've had multiple calls back and forth, and everybody understands where each side is coming from, and we are working toward getting a resolution," a Cuomo administration official said Saturday.

Cuomo administration officials have been seeking to establish basic, introductory terms for talks with the Bills: That in return for any state money, estimated at $150 million or more, the administration wants an ironclad agreement that the team will not move or, if it does, it will face a hefty financial penalty that would return state funds used on stadium renovations.

"I think the Bills are a good investment for Western New York and an important part of Western New York," Cuomo said in an interview with The Buffalo News. "But we want to make sure the relationships work both ways, and we need the commitment and the downside protection."

The "downside protection" is what happens if the team leaves before a new lease expires. And the Cuomo administration believes a reasonable lease commitment is 10 years, senior administration officials said.

Whether the state seeks to recoup every cent it provides for stadium renovation, should the team leave before 10 years, or whether a payment would be based on a sliding scale still has not been determined by administration officials.

There is much work to be done for any final deal, and the administration is clearly aware it has to strike a balance between keeping an important asset in Buffalo and not being seen as bailing out a wealthy NFL team. The administration understands the team's plight, that Wilson's health is failing and that the team would likely be sold at some point after his death, a senior state official said. The administration also knows that a "poison pill" - a refund penalty that is too high - could make the team unsellable.

Still, the state wants protections.

"We need to know that we are financially protected in the case of the disaster scenario: that the Bills leave. If we invest to fix the stadium and they leave, we'll be heart broken. But we also don't want to be out $200 million," a state official said.

While some Bills fans and officials have floated the idea of a new stadium, state officials said no such talks have occurred behind closed doors, and the team has only talked about renovating its current home. And administration officials say they have heard of no prospective owners ready to seriously step forward to keep the team in Buffalo after Wilson passes.

The NFL, when asked about the lease talks involving the Bills, deferred any comment, but a spokesman noted that Commissioner Roger Goodell has gone on record many times about his desire to keep the Bills in Western New York.

"We have a new collective-bargaining agreement," Goodell said six weeks ago in a visit to Chautauqua. "We have revenue sharing. All those will be beneficial to making sure the team continues to be successful for years right here in Western New York, and that's where we want to see them."

Cuomo has promised $1 billion for economic development projects in the Buffalo area over five years, and it is uncertain if any money for the stadium renovation might come from that state pot.

The Cuomo administration is under growing pressure from community leaders to prod - with money - the Bills to stay. Andrew Rudnick, head of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, the area's business lobby group, wrote last week that Cuomo got "limited support" from Western New York in his gubernatorial victory two years ago.

Cuomo has already taken a number of steps to become a "true friend" of the region, but several more initiatives need to be taken, Rudnick said, and that includes working harder to keep the Bills in Buffalo. Following a Buffalo News report that raised questions about the level of the Cuomo administration's activity in negotiations with the Bills and Erie County, Rudnick said talks have hit a "serious delay." He called on Cuomo to show "increased attention" to the Bills stadium lease situation.

The Cuomo administration has disputed those characterizations, noting that a number of high-level officials - including Duffy this week - are involved in the matter on a daily basis.

"They are an economic generator for Western New York, but I don't think there's a rationale without the protection," the senior Cuomo official said of the state investing in the Bills again with certain guarantees the team will remain in the area. "If you have the protection, fine. We're willing to do it again."

email: reporter Mark Gaughan contributed to this report.