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Editorial: Smart start on stadiums, though more public involvement would help

Received wisdom is common knowledge, passed from one generation to the next, that may or may not be true. Some examples: chicken wings must not be dipped in Ranch dressing; every national story has a Buffalo connection; the Bills’ 45-year-old stadium should have been built downtown.

After a plan fell through for a domed stadium in Lancaster, what was originally called Rich Stadium opened in 1973 in Orchard Park. In stadium years, the Bills’ facility is getting up there, functional but antiquated.

Last week came word that Pegula Sports & Entertainment has commissioned a study by a consultant on renovating or replacing New Era Field, plus potential renovations at the Sabres’ home, KeyBank Center. This is a good and necessary step in securing the teams’ long-term futures in Western New York, and it reopens the conversation about whether to keep the Bills in Orchard Park or move their home downtown.

The Bills’ stadium is the more pressing concern. Their lease with Erie County expires in 2023, while the Sabres’ runs through 2025.

Pegula Sports is paying for the study by CAA ICON, a Denver-based consultant. The results will not be made public, which is Pegula Sports’ right, but still disappointing. Bruce Popko, Pegula Sports & Entertainment’s chief operating officer, said feedback from fans will be a central source of input to the study. And Erie County taxpayers will pay for a big chunk of whatever is done with the Bills’ facility, so why not throw a bone to the citizenry and let us ponder the possibilities?

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz cautioned that the existence of the Pegula-funded study does not mean there are tea leaves to be read about the teams’ plans.

“Any final decision will ultimately be made by the Pegulas through PSE, the county and New York State after future negotiations,” he said.

Poloncarz said in early October that a new stadium would cost at least $1 billion, which made it too expensive for the county to take on. He also said the county is not entertaining the idea of combining a new stadium with a new downtown convention center.

The Sabres’ venue is 23 years old. Popko said it needs improvement in the seating, better audio, improved digital connectivity and new digital screens.

There is little threat of our hockey team leaving town, but it’s good to see the Pegulas wanting to improve the arena and make a better fan experience. The Sabres’ resurgence on the ice – they’re the hottest team in the National Hockey League – means more sales of tickets, concessions and merchandise for the team. It’s good business sense to invest more of the profits in the arena’s upkeep.

New Era Field, meanwhile, received more than $130 million in renovations several years ago, funded by the Pegulas and Erie County. Poloncarz said that beyond the CAA ICON study, there is public money set aside for a future outside study that will be jointly commissioned by the Pegulas, the county and the state.

We’ve said in this space before that a new stadium, while no small undertaking, is a price worth paying to keep the Bills here. When founding owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. was dissatisfied with War Memorial Stadium in the late 1960s, he listened to overtures from Seattle, Memphis and Tampa about moving the team. After Wilson died in 2014, there were fears about a new owner taking the franchise elsewhere.

Terry and Kim Pegula’s purchase of the Bills, three years after buying the Sabres, put an end to talk of the team leaving town. The Pegulas, under their One Buffalo brand, have done well for Buffalo, ensuring that it remains a major league city. Its teams deserve to play in major league facilities.

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