Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz is pushing back hard against the NFL’s demand that a new stadium be built for the Buffalo Bills, saying that paying for such a facility would be a burden that county taxpayers cannot and should not bear.
In an interview this week, Poloncarz asked that the National Football League show him the financial records of the teams to prove whether NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is right when he says the Bills need a new home.
“They have to prove to me that the Bills can’t be viable in Ralph Wilson Stadium,” said Poloncarz, a participant in the negotiations for the 10-year lease that resulted in $130 million in renovations being completed this year at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park. “If we’re going to have to build a new stadium, I want to see something that really proves we need a new stadium.”
Noting that any new facility would likely cost at least $750 million, with a third of that likely paid by the county, Poloncarz said: “I’m not going to cut libraries, I’m not going to cut parks, I’m not going to cut Child Protective Services to give more money to the multibillionaires who run professional football.”
Poloncarz added that some NFL team owners “probably don’t care” if a new stadium resulted in those cuts in Erie County, so long as the new arena meant more ticket revenues for the Bills, which would mean more money for other NFL teams, too, because the league shares its ticket revenues.
“I think they are taking the opportunity to use this as a revenue grab,” Poloncarz said.
Asked for a response to Poloncarz’s comments, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello addressed only the county executive’s call for the league to release financial information about its teams.
“The exchange of relevant information at the appropriate time is part of the process,” Aiello said.
The county executive’s comments come in the wake of a Buffalo News report Sunday in which NFL officials for the first time offered some explanation for Goodell’s repeated demand that the Bills get a new stadium.
League officials said the team needs a new stadium because the league wants Bills fans to have the same top-level experience that fans have at other NFL venues and because a new facility would mean more revenue both for the team and the league.
But Poloncarz said NFL officials made no such arguments only two years ago, when the Bills agreed to that lease keeping the team in Orchard Park for another decade. He also noted that NFL owners approved that lease last year without making any demands that the renovations be more extensive or that a concrete plan be put in place to build a new stadium.
“We did understand that some owners were not happy, but it was approved,” Poloncarz said. “We heard nothing at the time that this wasn’t enough.”
The current renovation at The Ralph creates huge new concessions areas outside the stadium concourses and also creates additional space between the gates and the arena, all in hopes of alleviating crowding in the walkways.
But the retrofit falls short of what the Bills requested, which was a more extensive renovation similar to what was completed at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., four years ago. In that $375 million renovation, the concourses were expanded and the stadium’s footprint enlarged to accommodate more concessions right where all the fans are walking.
That sort of renovation of The Ralph would have cost about an additional $100 million and could have proved difficult from a design standpoint, Poloncarz said.
NFL officials have also said that sort of extensive renovation usually doesn’t work well, which is why they have been making the case for an entirely new facility for the Bills.
Poloncarz argued that the NFL is pushing for a “palace” for the Bills not unlike Levi’s Stadium, the brand-new home of the San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara, Calif.
Levi’s Stadium, with 68,500 seats and 165 luxury boxes, features a 49ers Museum, conference and event space for year-round use and a Bourbon Steak restaurant.
Such a facility might extract a lot more money from fans than Ralph Wilson Stadium does. But Poloncarz argued that while a $1.2 billion stadium with all sorts of extra amenities might be appropriate for the San Francisco Bay Area, it might not be right for Buffalo. “It’s a different beast,” Poloncarz said of the 49ers’ new home. “I don’t think Buffalo Bills fans want a stadium like that. Do they want to pay $100 for a steak dinner? I don’t think so.”
Poloncarz, a former county comptroller, has drawn an increasing hard line on the idea of a new Bills stadium even though, less than two years ago, he expressed interest in exploring the possibility of a new downtown facility for the team.
“Any new owner, if they’re interested in buying this team, in the future would like to have a new stadium,” Poloncarz said in December 2012, when the Bills signed a memorandum of understanding for their current 10-year lease at The Ralph.
“We understand it’s important to start talking about that now. That increases the economic value of the team, and it lets the public know we’re considering not just the seven-year agreement or 10 years, but looking beyond that to ensure the Bills play in a state-of-the-art stadium.”
Asked about that comment Tuesday, Poloncarz said that as he has studied the costs and financing of other new NFL stadiums, he has become increasingly concerned about the possible burden on the county.
“I was not saying that we have to have that,” Poloncarz said of his 2012 comments about a possible downtown stadium. “I said: We’re going to contemplate this.”