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Erik Brady: Dome or open-air stadium? The argument that never ends

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Bills stadium aerial Highmark

An aerial view of Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park.

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Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, the French critic and novelist, offered that aphorism nearly 175 years ago. “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

And if you have followed Erie County’s endless back-and-forth over where to put a football stadium — suburb or city — and what kind of stadium it ought to be — domed or open-air — well, then you know that Monsieur Karr was correct.

In the most recent round, the answer is the same one we arrived at the last time: open-air, in Orchard Park, with public money. (Sort of like Colonel Mustard, in the library, with a lead pipe.)

This time the argument was effectively over before it began. Last time, things were far different. The argument then was between a domed stadium in Lancaster or an open-air one downtown. In the end, of course, we got a mashup: suburb, yes; dome, no.

As it happens, this weekend the Class of 1972 at Canisius High School will celebrate 50 years since our graduation. Today I’ll be taking a ride up to Buffalo from northern Virginia with a classmate, Pat Cavanagh.

Pat Cavanagh

Pat Cavanagh in 1968.

We met as freshmen in homeroom 1F. I’m from Ken-Ton. He’s from Lancaster. And one day we had a formal debate, in front of the class, on where a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills should go.

I argued for an open-air stadium downtown. He argued for a dome in Lancaster.

“We were Kornheiser and Wilbon before PTI,” Pat says of the ESPN chat show in which Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon argue about everything.

Our classroom debate was simple. The real-life debate, of course, was anything but. First, Erie County agreed to build a domed stadium in Lancaster on land owned by a developer, Ed Cottrell. But what followed instead was a courtroom saga that lasted for two decades, through multiple lawsuits.

All that, of course, was still years in the future as Pat and I made our arguments in class. I have only recently come to know the rest of the story: Pat’s father was general manager of Lancaster Ford, one of three Ford dealerships that Ed Cottrell owned in Western New York.

“I was for the dome,” Pat says now, “because I had a financial interest.”

(The county backed out of building the domed stadium when the cost came in too high, and it built what is now Highmark Stadium, in Orchard Park. Cottrell sued for $495 million for breach of contract. A jury awarded $64 million, and an appeals court reduced that to $6.1 million.)

Erik Brady

Erik Brady in 1968.

I used a sight gag as part of my argument in that 1968 debate. A popular local bumper sticker of that era read: “No more snow. Football in the dome.” I used scissors and tape to alter it: “No more dome. Football in the snow.”

An internal study conducted a few years ago by Pegula Sports and Entertainment put it this way: “No roof. Outdoor football.” Sounds a bit like my doctored wording, doesn’t it? I like to think that means I won my debate with Pat. But let’s face it: I didn’t get that city location — then or now. And Pat has a convincing argument on his side, too.

He is the owner of a roofing business in northern Virginia. His company put a roof on my daughter’s house some years back. And now, come to think of it, the house where my wife and I raised our kids (and where we still live) is going to need a new roof soon.

When Pat puts a new dome on my domicile, I will, at long last, have to concede:

He wins.

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Erik Brady has more than 50 years in newspapers as a paperboy for The Buffalo Evening News, a sports columnist for The Courier-Express and sports reporter for USA Today, where he retired as the last member of the national newspaper’s founding generation.

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