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Erie County voters split on public funding for new stadium

Erie County voters find themselves split over whether they should bear part of the cost burden for a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills.

In a random scientific poll that showed a clear majority favoring a new facility and a downtown location for it, some 48 percent of voters polled said taxpayers should pay some of the costs for the Bills’ new home. That’s exactly the same percentage of people who said the public should pay none of the costs.

None of the 505 voters surveyed between Jan. 20 and 21 said the public should pay the total cost of a new football palace, which is expected to cost upward of $1 billion. And only 1 percent said the public should pay most of the costs.

“Clearly there is a reluctance among many voters to even paying some of the costs, much less paying most or all,” said Donald P. Levy, director of the Siena Research Institute, which conducted the poll for The Buffalo News and WGRZ-TV.

While voters were split over paying for a new stadium, they favored building the facility by an 18 point margin – and they favored building it in downtown rather than Orchard Park by 15 points.

But that reluctance to pay for a new stadium is nothing unique to Erie County voters, said Jason A. Winfree, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Idaho and the author of a book chapter called “NFL Franchise Values, Locations and Stadium Economics.”

Told of the survey’s split over paying for the stadium, Winfree said: “That’s not too surprising. I think the public is a little less likely to want to give money to these stadium projects than they were 20 years ago.”

In fact, Winfree said, that reluctance may be one of the reasons taxpayers have been paying a declining share of the costs for new NFL stadiums in recent years. Since the NFL established a loan program in 2001 to help teams pay for new facilities, the amount of money that teams have contributed to those stadiums has multiplied sixfold, while the amount paid by taxpayers has essentially held steady.

Still, that means that taxpayers have contributed an average of $233 million to each of the new NFL stadiums built since the loan program was established, according to data compiled by Vanderbilt University economist John Vrooman.

In other words, if a new stadium is built, public money – most likely coming from Erie County and the state – is likely to cover some of the costs.

Given that the state and county just dumped $130 million into the latest renovation of Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo have expressed skepticism about investing more money into a new facility.

Poloncarz said he is not surprised that so many voters said they opposed using public money in that way. “I think if you had actually quantified what the public investment might be, the higher that number gets, the lower the support is,” Poloncarz said.

Reiterating his vow not to cut libraries, parks and other key services to help pay for a stadium, Poloncarz said: “This has to make sense for the team, but more importantly, it has to make sense for the community.”

Economists such as Winfree almost unanimously cite evidence showing that new stadiums don’t spur a lot of spinoff economic benefit. Instead, they reshuffle money that’s already being spent in the community while simultaneously boosting profits for NFL teams.

Acknowledging that reality, Poloncarz said: “There are those who say there’s tremendous economic benefit and development that results from a new stadium, but I don’t see it unless it’s somehow combined with a convention center. There really is no economic spinoff that results if it’s just a stadium. That’s been proven again and again.”

Both Poloncarz and Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat who has been more amenable to the idea of a new Bills stadium, noted that the community has the luxury of time to decide the issue, given that the Bills’ lease at Ralph Wilson Stadium does not expire till 2022.

“I think it’s predictable that people are split” over the idea of helping to pay for a new stadium, Higgins said. “And for good reason.”

He noted, though, that the results would have been more positive if voters had been asked if they would be willing to pay for infrastructure, such as road improvements and new highway ramps to serve the new stadium, rather than the stadium itself.

The public share of stadium costs increasingly goes toward those sorts of infrastructure improvements rather than to stadium construction, but Higgins said voters may not recognize that fact.

“What they’re responding to is the traditional way of funding stadiums,” he said.

The random poll, which has a margin of error of /-4.4 percentage points, also found that men favored some public funding for the stadium by 13 points while women opposed it by 14 points. That was the only key demographic difference in the poll: younger people were just about as divided as older people over the stadium funding question, and the respondents’ political views did not appear to make a huge difference in their responses, either.

However, those who support a new stadium favored some public funding for it by 35 points, while those who oppose building a stadium oppose public funding by an even bigger margin: 49 points.

That seems to indicate there’s plenty of passion out there on the stadium question, which is just what interviews with several of the poll respondents found.

Mickey Saxbury, 57, of Grand Island, said he’s willing to pay part of the cost for a new stadium because of the good it will do for Buffalo.

“This could make downtown a lot better, and if we get a domed stadium, the town would benefit greatly from that,” said Saxbury, who envisioned Buffalo eventually hosting a Super Bowl in that dome and reaping a huge economic benefit as a result.

Meanwhile, Diana Dickson, 82, of East Aurora, stressed how much the Bills mean to the community.

“People do have such a great time tailgating and at the games, and I think we should be willing to pay something for that” to ensure the Bills’ long-term future in Buffalo, Dickson said.

Similarly, Sharea McNab, 23, of Buffalo, said she’s happy with the idea of public money for a new Bills stadium even though she doesn’t pay a lot of attention to the NFL.

“I like to support my city,” she said.

If anything, passions appeared even stronger on the other side of the issue.

“I get taxed a lot of money already, so I am opposed to my money going to this,” said Thomas Tacenzia, a 21-year-old carpenter from Clarence Center.

Others indicated that the community couldn’t afford the cost burden of a new stadium.

“We have so many other pressing needs,” said Margaret Root, 53, of Buffalo, saying better schools should be a much higher priority than a new football stadium.

“I don’t think a new football stadium serves the greater good,” added Root, calling such a facility “a luxury.”

Timothy Yeates, 53, of Buffalo, said he and a lot of people oppose public funding for a simple reason.

Noting that Buffalo remains one of the poorest cities in the country, he said: “We should be giving people a hand up instead of handing out a lot of money to billionaires.”

Then again, Yeates said he doesn’t expect the Bills’ new owners, Terry and Kim Pegula, to come to the community looking for a handout, given that the Jacobs family, which runs Delaware North, has expressed a desire to be involved in helping build a new stadium.

“The Pegulas and the Jacobses are going to step up and be the heroes and take the burden off the taxpayers,” he predicted.

email: jzremski@buffnews.com

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