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Think hard, think twice about a new stadium

It’s easy to get jacked up, with the consultant’s site report just released, Rex Ryan in tow and the Bills undefeated in 2015. No wonder most folks in a poll taken in the wake of the report support a new Bills stadium.

But we need to stash the pompons and send the marching band home. With a hometown-friendly owner in place, we’ve got time to think twice about a stadium – at the southern edge of downtown, the site of three of the four options, or anywhere.

I didn’t like the new stadium idea, even when people thought we’d need one to persuade a prospective out-of-town owner to stay. With Buffalo-friendly Terry and Kim Pegula in place, it makes even less sense.

I’m hardly the only one with reservations.

“It’s still an open question for me,” said Mark Poloncarz, the county executive. “Especially now that we have a Buffalo-committed owner. We have plenty of time to make any determination.”

Pegula was the answer to the community’s prayers: A billionaire with a Buffalo connection who’d reject the lure of fatter profits in a larger market. The urgency to build a new stadium – with higher ticket prices and costlier luxury seating, to entice a new owner to stay – evaporated when Pegula took the prize. Better, he put down the full $1.4 billion. There is no “mortgage” to pay, further easing the need for a profit-enhancing palace.

Relieved of the “build soon” pressure, the community’s play call seemed obvious: Punt.

It’s the 21st century. Any notion that football stadiums help a community economically is deader than the rotary phone. Sports economists have for years been united in killing the stadiums-as-economic-development myth.

“It’s really hard to justify the economic argument, dollar for dollar,” said Ted Fay, a sports management professor at SUNY Cortland. “There are a lot of good feelings involved, but it’s not the best return on investment for Buffalo.”

You don’t need an economics degree to understand it. A mammoth structure surrounded by parking lots that sits idle for more than 350 days a year is the polar economic extreme from an auto plant or solar panel factory. You can make a football stadium seem more useful by pairing it with a convention center or banquet facility. But doing so, to my mind, doesn’t aid downtown’s revival, it damages it.

The current convention center is an anchor for hotels, bars, restaurants and theaters in the center of downtown. Close it, and all of the businesses within walking distance take a hit – and we have yet another empty, life-sucking space in the downtown core.

“Be careful about displacing what already works for you,” said Fay, who has been to Buffalo numerous times. “I think it would be a killer if you moved the convention center out of the middle of downtown.”

A new stadium is part of the buzz about the New Buffalo – a reviving downtown, Canalside, HarborCenter. It’s easy to get hooked on the feeling; the communal enthusiasm has been a long time coming. But I have lived in the city for more than 30 years, long anticipated its revival and want to see it continue. We need to think twice about putting a mammoth, taxpayer-subsidized, limited-use structure – supported by vast acres of parking – on the edge of downtown.

Downtowns are about density, about fitting many people into a small area. The concentration justifies public transportation, feeds housing and supports businesses. Large football stadiums, which – unlike, say, First Niagara Center – sit idle save for a smattering of Sundays, are anti-urban. It’s why they are usually built in rural/suburban areas where land is cheap and highway access easy. The cry for a downtown football stadium has always mystified me.

“You have 65,000 people show up on occasion,” SUNY Cortland’s Fay told me by phone. “But the other 350 days a year, it’s the equivalent of a huge vacant lot ... Be careful what you wish for, and where you put it. You can lose a lot by mislocating it.” As new members of the elite club of NFL owners, the Pegulas are being initiated into the culture – and encouraged to build a new stadium.

Commissioner Roger Goodell, who is essentially a front man for the owners, on Friday again beat the new stadium drum. The shared revenue from subsequently higher ticket prices from a new Buffalo stadium would pad every owners’ wallet. Jerry Jones, Dan Snyder and the rest of NFL’s billionaires’ club don’t care that the region isn’t growing or that Buffalo is among the nation’s poorest cities. They just want to squeeze more dollars out of this market.

We already pay a high price for an NFL team. Under the current 10-year lease, the Bills annually net an average of 21 million county and state tax dollars in capital costs/expenses. That buys a lot of child protection caseworkers, librarians, sheriff’s deputies, road asphalt and bridge steel.

Granted, the Bills are entertaining, enhance our quality of life, connect us to the big time and are part of our communal identity – all of which matter. The question, if a new stadium is in our future, is how much can the community afford to give, given other needs?

“I am not going to cut libraries, parks, child protection or other services to build a stadium,” Poloncarz told me. “The Pegulas and the NFL would have to come up with a significant portion of the money.”

That sounds like reasonable rules in the stadium game.

We have a stadium with great sight lines that just got a $130 million face-lift and has another 30 years of structural life. Building a new one won’t help us economically and – if plopped at or near the Cobblestone District – may do a reviving downtown more harm than good.

The question that most needs answering still isn’t where to build a stadium, but why?