This may seem a little too simple.
If you take a broad view of the Buffalo Bills’ negotiations with New York State and Erie County for a new stadium, all sides want the same thing: The Bills playing in Western New York over the next few decades in a newly built venue.
The prospects of renovating Highmark Stadium, which were already dim after a county-commissioned report earlier this year projected extensive renovations to the 48-year-old structure, have been effectively put to rest by a state study that recommended against it.
Simply put, a new stadium it is.
But even if everyone involved wants to make that happen, it's tough to pull off, especially when that venue will cost at least $1.4 billion and be largely paid for by public dollars.
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What it takes to get a stadium built is simple: Money, and time.
But it isn't easy.
“Everyone’s happy with the collaboration and the effort,” said Ron Raccuia, who is executive vice president of Pegula Sports and Entertainment and represents team owners Terry and Kim Pegula in the negotiations. Raccuia offered that reflection on a Wednesday afternoon in late October. Earlier that morning, National Football League officials in New York had updated owners and executives from the 31 other teams on the progress of the Bills’ stadium negotiation.
The other NFL owners have reason to care about what happens with the Bills. Buffalo is the first smaller NFL market in decades to be seeking to build a stadium, which means for Cincinnati and other cities, what happens in Western New York could be a model, even a precedent.
Mark Davis, the owner of the Las Vegas Raiders, called it “exciting.” Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who is close with Terry Pegula and whose consulting company, Legends Global Partnerships, has been hired by the Bills, spoke effusively of the television audience Buffalo draws, telling The News, “While it’s a small market, it’s tremendously visible.”
And with tremendously positive messaging, at least on that day. Everything stated publicly by anyone privy to inside details on the Bills’ stadium negotiations was optimistic. That continued even a couple hours later at a state government office a few blocks away, where Gov. Kathy Hochul told The News she wants a Bills stadium in the state budget.
There it was again: A simply stated goal that is complicated to achieve.
That’s probably why Raccuia, when lauding “collaboration” and “effort,” also added this: “We still have a ways to go on progress.”
Here are three points to watch as negotiators try to build progress in the coming weeks and months:
1. The timing is lining up – so far. Will it continue?
Raccuia told The News that if the framework of an agreement is reached by the end of the year, it’s possible the Bills could be playing in a new Orchard Park stadium by 2026. That’s one season earlier than originally projected.
With the sides talking weekly or more that’s on track so far. “Talks are consistently taking place in order to achieve the goal of getting the deal done by the end of the year,” Raccuia said.
That aligns with public statements by Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, who essentially functions as the landlord of the stadium, and Hochul, who will be responsible for designating the bulk of the public money for a new venue.
Having the framework of an agreement in place by the start of 2022 would allow Poloncarz to present the deal to the Erie County Legislature, which unanimously passed a resolution demanding updates and will be holding three public hearings in December, likely before a pact is reached.
Achieving a framework by late December or early January also positions Hochul to negotiate with state legislators to get the stadium into the budget. “This will be a budgetary issue and therefore will show up in the New York state budget as an item once I’ve had a chance to speak to the legislators and garner support for that,” she said.
This is where the politics get tricky, both inside and outside the halls of government. Internally, both Hochul and Poloncarz will need to work with the legislative branches of government. Externally, there will be political pressure, especially for Hochul. She is running in 2022 for a four-year term and faces a Democratic primary in June against state Attorney General Letitia James and likely New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Sending $1 billion or more to an upstate stadium project is almost certain to draw harsh criticism from the left, while not doing it would be akin to swinging a sledgehammer into her upstate foundation of support. The optimal timing for Hochul – and by extension, state legislators, who are also up for re-election – is to space a stadium deal as far as possible from the polls. (Poloncarz's term runs through 2023.)
Dates matter for the Bills, too. That includes league meetings like the one last week in New York, as well as the Super Bowl – which doubles as football’s premiere networking event – and the next owners meetings in late March.
It's important to retain "a sense of urgency on the part of the public sector," said Marc Ganis, a consultant for several NFL teams. "The calendar is not kind. The last thing that anybody wants to do ... is have so much time go by with minimal progress that other communities try and pitch themselves to the Bills."
2. The Bills want Orchard Park – but will the other parties see it the same?
The Pegula camp has been advocating for a 60,000-seat venue built across the street from Highmark Stadium. That suburban location is shovel-ready county land and adjacent to Erie Community College’s South Campus, which may close. Once a new complex is opened there, Highmark Stadium would be torn down and become a parking lot.
The Bills consider this to be the cost- and time-effective choice. Raccuia contends that building a stadium in the other much-considered location – along South Park Avenue just outside downtown – would take two to three years longer.
A recently released report put numbers to the differences. A new stadium in Orchard Park would cost $1.35 billion, according to a 91-page document developed by the engineering firm AECOM for New York State. That’s relatively close to the $1.4 billion projected by the Bills, and less than the projected price of building downtown. The report indicated a city facility would cost “a minimum of approximately $350 million more than a stadium in Orchard Park,” and perhaps in excess of $2.1 billion.
The city location is complicated by environmental reviews, infrastructure changes and the likely relocation of residents and businesses.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the idea of a downtown stadium is a nonstarter. The state report, which notes the greater economic benefit of a downtown stadium because of heightened property values, offers no recommendation.
One location is out: The existing stadium.
The AECOM study reinforced what has been publicized already: The Bills’ current home, 48-year-old Highmark Stadium, is nearing its end. Renovating it would cost a projected $862 million, with the strong possibility of that price going up as complications arise. A renovated stadium typically lasts for 10-15 years, according to the report, while a new facility is good for three decades or more.
“It probably does not make sense to do renovations when you are talking about a new stadium that could last more than double the life of a renovation,” Poloncarz said. “The cost – while expensive in both regards – is not that much more, astronomically more, than a renovation.”
3. The Bills generate millions for the economy – so are they worth the investment?
NFL teams play in stadiums that sit empty much of the year, and while they pay hundreds of millions in salaries, most of that money is not spent in the local markets. But those paychecks do generate significant income tax dollars that benefit the state – which will also be the source of most of the funding for a new Western New York stadium.
Measuring the economic impact of NFL teams is inexact and even controversial. Consider this range: Pegula Sports commissioned a study that calculated the Bills' impact as $361 million annually in Buffalo and Erie County, and $380 million each year statewide. Those figures were reached by analyzing a range of direct and indirect factors, including spending, employment and income taxes.
The state study, meanwhile, calculated an impact of $4.3 million annually in Buffalo and Erie County, and $22.3 million annually in New York, based mostly on tax revenue, which was only a fractional component of the Bills report.
The Pegula study was broad and incorporated estimated numbers on Bills-related spending and jobs, some of which came from surveys. The state study, by comparison, was more tightly focused on hard, tangible figures, such as tax revenue derived from purchases, hotels, gas sales, rental vehicles and personal income. The Bills' annual stadium rent payment to Erie County – $862,000 – was also included.
Both methodologies are within the realm of tools that economists use, and there’s a negotiating advantage to the Bills presenting high numbers and the state coming in low.
Even with the vast gap in figures, the economic results illustrate that the NFL is big business, one that requires a state-of-the-art stadium. The authors of the state AECOM study wrote, “By hosting one of only 32 NFL franchises, the Buffalo market receives a significant amount of recognition through national and international television, media and internet broadcasts. This exposure can serve to raise the profile of the Buffalo area in the eyes of corporations and individuals considering relocating to or visiting Western New York, in turn helping strengthen the overall economy of the area.”
News staff reporters Jason Wolf and Sandra Tan contributed to this story.