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Brownfield to football field? Town suggests Tonawanda Coke site for new Bills stadium

Town of Tonawanda officials have an idea about what could replace Tonawanda Coke: the Buffalo Bills.

(Insert joke about exchanging one thing that stinks for another here.)

Supervisor Joseph Emminger and Town Engineer James Jones want the Bills to consider building a new stadium on the site of the River Road coking plant, which is shutting down. The site is in the heavily populated Northtowns, it has sufficient roads and other infrastructure and it's easier to access for the team's Canadian fans, they say.

The officials say they've kicked around the idea for a couple of years, but they haven't publicized it because they didn't want to push Tonawanda Coke out of business to make way for the team. They know some people won't take this idea seriously – including the people who ultimately will decide where a new stadium would go – but they're convinced it makes sense to turn this brownfield into a football field.

"Your initial reaction is to start laughing, you know, but when you think about it, it's not a bad idea," Emminger said Monday.

The Tonawanda officials haven't talked about the idea with the Bills nor with Erie County, which will play a prime role in any new stadium.

Asked for comment, a Pegula Sports and Entertainment spokesman said he had no information about the proposal. A spokesman for Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said they haven't had any contact with town officials on the stadium.

Emminger admits the idea is more of a pipe dream at this point, but he wants Tonawanda to be part of the conversation about a new stadium site.

"I don't know if it's going to happen, but I just want it to be considered," Emminger said.

Tonawanda Coke operated at the site along the Niagara River under various names for 101 years, until financial and regulatory pressures led to last week's decision to close. That shutdown is taking place now.

Could toxic trouble at Tonawanda Coke get worse after it closes?

The property is 206 acres, according to the town, and requires an extensive cleanup.

What better way to reuse the property, Emminger said, than to replace the coke ovens with a new Bills stadium?

Emminger said it will take years to clean up the property, which is on the list of federal Superfund sites, but that's OK because it will take years before any decision on a new stadium is made.

Owners Terry and Kim Pegula have said little publicly about any plans for a new stadium. But discussion of the best site for a new facility has focused on extensively renovating New Era Field, building a new stadium near the current site in Orchard Park or building a new venue near downtown Buffalo.

Tonawanda wasn't in that mix, but Emminger and Jones say the Tonawanda Coke site has merit.

It's meant to be a year-round, multi-use facility, said Jones, who has put together a basic diagram of where the stadium could fit and who first tried to sell the supervisor on the concept.

A map of what a Bills stadium at the Tonawanda Coke site could look like. (Image courtesy Town of Tonawanda)

"I sat on it for a couple of years. I would periodically tell Jim, 'Your idea's not dead,' " Emminger said.

For one thing, it's in the population belt of the Northtowns that includes the Tonawandas, North Buffalo and Amherst. It's also closer for fans in Niagara County and Ontario, Emminger said.

There's easy access from the Niagara Thruway and the Youngmann Memorial Highway. There's plenty of space on the site.

And putting a stadium and ring of asphalt parking lots on the site is probably the safest way for people to reuse the property, Emminger and Jones said – certainly better than a park.

"You're not going to be rubbing your face on the ground at the site," Emminger said, "unless you've had a little too much to drink."

A stadium in Tonawanda remains an elusive goal, like finding a franchise quarterback. But Emminger said it's not as crazy as it sounds.

For example, he and his daughter were watching Sunday's Bills-Texans game while the supervisor fielded calls about Tonawanda Coke. At one point she turned to him and said, "Why don't you put the stadium where Tonawanda Coke is?"

Emminger, who had not told her about the concept, said, "I looked at her and I said, 'Interesting idea. You never know.' "

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