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Hochul says state will accept Orchard Park as site of new Bills stadium

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Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott runs off the field after the Bills 31-14 win over the Carolina Panthers at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, Sunday, Dec. 19, 2021. 

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New York is willing to accept a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills in Orchard Park if this remains the team's preference, Gov. Kathy Hochul said Monday morning.

This is the first time the governor has said the state, which is expected to put up the majority of the funding for the projected $1.4 billion stadium, will go along with the team's view that a new facility in Orchard Park makes the most sense.

"We are very intently focused on keeping the Bills here," said Hochul, answering a question after discussing the state's Covid-19 response at Wyoming County Community Health System in Warsaw. "If Orchard Park’s their first choice – their only choice, it's Orchard Park – we’ll make it all happen. So we’re very excited about announcing a deal hopefully in the near future."

Hochul said state officials have studiously avoided publicly advocating for a preferred location to avoid putting a thumb on the scale of the decision-making process.

A study commissioned by the state agreed with the need for a new stadium to replace Highmark Stadium, which is nearly 50 years old, but did not recommend between a stadium near downtown Buffalo or one in Orchard Park. That 91-page report by the engineering firm AECOM projected a new stadium in Orchard Park would cost $1.35 billion – close to the Bills' own $1.4 billion estimate. The report also said 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.

"We have had conversations and I’ve made it clear to the Buffalo Bills organization that we wanted to accommodate both options and let them see the cost of downtown and Orchard Park," Hochul said. "But not putting our finger on the scale. And if their desire is Orchard Park, it’s Orchard Park. We’ve never said otherwise."

Ron Raccuia, executive vice president of Pegula Sports & Entertainment, said the organization appreciates Hochul's comments. 

"There’s a lot of work to be done and we continue those efforts,” he said in a statement to The Buffalo News. 

The Bills' preference is to build a 60,000-seat venue built across the street from Highmark Stadium because the land is shovel ready, making construction costs less expensive and more predictable. Building there also quickens the timeline for construction. While the team originally projected moving into a new stadium by 2027, the Orchard Park site may allow the team to move that up a year.

“If we get an answer on a stadium by the end of this year and construction doesn’t get delayed, we can be ready for the 2026 season,” Raccuia told The News in late October. Raccuia, who represents team owners Terry and Kim Pegula in negotiations, also noted that building a stadium on the proposed city site, along South Park Avenue on the outskirts of downtown, would take two to three years longer.

Once a venue is built on the Orchard Park land, which is owned by Erie County and adjacent to Erie Community College, Highmark Stadium will be razed and become a parking lot. In broad terms, remaining in Orchard Park gives the Bills a sense of predictability and assurance that they can build on the business model they have. Team officials have said they have strong feedback from fans who want the stadium to remain in Orchard Park, where parking – and therefore space for tailgating – is plentiful, and where ticket sales have been strong even in previous seasons when the now-winning team has performed poorly.

Moving to a new location, conversely, opens up issues, ranging from potentially costly construction snags to the relocation of hundreds of people living in public housing on the proposed city site – and over the long term, the possibility that change in fan experience may adversely impact ticket sales.

The Bills have emphasized they want the major elements of an agreement in place by Dec. 31. Having a memorandum of understanding by year's end would allow Hochul to include the stadium in her proposed state budget, which is presented in January, and also position Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz to seek support from the Erie County Legislature. Though the bulk of funding will come from the state, the county serves as the landlord of the stadium.

The governor also said Monday she believes, as she has stated in the past, that the state, the Bills and Erie County can reach an agreement on where to build a stadium and how to pay for it by the end of 2021. But she also said it's possible negotiations could continue through the conclusion of the state budget process, which is supposed to end March 31. She said state representatives have offered the team's negotiators a two-track approach to wrapping up a deal.

"So I also have a larger window if we need more time. So it’s not a hard deadline," Hochul said, referring to Dec. 31. "But my desire is, I’m a Buffalo Bills fan, let’s lock this down. Let’s get it done."

A spokesman for Poloncarz said the county executive and governor talked this weekend. 

"Negotiations are ongoing and are complicated and we will not get into the particulars of them until they’ve concluded. The county executive remains committed to reaching a final agreement that is acceptable to Erie County taxpayers and continues to work towards that goal," said Peter Anderson, Poloncarz's press secretary. 

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News Staff Reporter

I report on development, government, crime and schools in the northern Erie County suburbs. I grew up in the Town of Tonawanda and worked at the Post-Standard in Syracuse before joining The News in 2001. Email: swatson@buffnews.com

Enterprise Reporter

I've been a journalist and author since age 16 and write about social and political issues, popular culture, sports, business and anything - and anybody - that is interesting.

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