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Rod Watson: In the '80s, Common Council proved what strong stadium negotiators can do

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There would be no Johnnie B. Wiley Amateur Athletic Sports Pavilion – with the restored gates of the old War Memorial Stadium – if the Common Council had not held firm in negotiations to make sure the community benefited from a new downtown baseball stadium.

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The term “community benefits agreement” hadn’t been coined back then.

But old timers have told football writer Pat Freeman how the surrounding community benefited when the Buffalo Bills played in War Memorial Stadium in the heart of the city’s East Side.

“We parked their cars on our lawn, we had the cookouts and sold them food,” said Freeman, describing the ancillary benefits enterprising neighbors derived from fans visiting the former stadium right in their midst.

Decades later, there’s a lot more on the table. But that neighborhood, and others like it, are still waiting to see if they will end up with much more than pocket change for the public’s $850 million investment in a new stadium next to the Orchard Park site the Bills moved to in 1973.

There’s already a template for making sure they do.

It’s worth remembering that there would be no Johnnie B. Wiley Amateur Athletic Sports Pavilion today at Jefferson Avenue and Best Street – site of the old stadium, which also hosted the Buffalo Bisons minor league baseball team – without a core group of Common Council members using their clout to benefit the community.

Back in the 1980s, when the new downtown baseball stadium was up for approval, the late Council members Dave Collins and George Arthur, along with James Pitts and Al Coppola, were vocal in using their leverage on bond votes for the baseball stadium to guarantee redevelopment of the War Memorial site.

Derided as “obstructionists” at the time, they had the vision and fortitude to make sure the neighborhood benefited at the same time that downtown reaped whatever fruits a new playpen might bring.

As an extended deadline of Oct. 16 approaches for County Legislature approval of the CBA and other stadium documents, legislators will have to be just as strong as Council members were back then.

Biting through the muzzle

They did not get off to a good start in acquiescing to the ridiculous “nondisclosure agreement” the three Legislature negotiators had to accept in order to participate in the talks with the state and team. Barring public officials from keeping their constituents informed on a project the public is funding to the tune of $850 million is obscene.

But they still have a chance to deliver for the community, particularly with Chairwoman April Baskin’s work in reaching out to residents for input and drafting blueprints for a meaningful CBA.

Her proposals touch on everything from making sure minorities, women and people from low-income neighborhoods participate in construction and operation of the new stadium to making sure that those without cars have a way to get there for jobs and events.

Mindful of the possible spinoff effects on property values that were lost by not building in the city – despite a public campaign that the Bills and even city officials ignored – Baskin also wants a community investment fund to help underserved communities, as well as affordable and mixed-income housing programs.

And realistic about the fact that any CBA is only as strong “as the pressure applied to the stadium leaseholder to comply,” Baskin wants an oversight board created with “the authority to review compliance and issue penalties” if the agreement is violated.

With a community-focused list like that on the table, it’s little wonder other parties to the talks don’t want the public knowing how they regard such proposals.

Barred by the NDA from discussing details, Baskin nevertheless said she’s encouraged by the negotiating process as well as by what the team has done lately in the community, adding that the effort needs to expand and “be codified.”

Council provided a template

Nothing better illustrates what’s at stake than the fact that the old stadium was just a stone’s throw from where a Tops supermarket now sits, renovated after a man authorities have called a white supremacist killed 10 Blacks there in the spring. He said in his plans that he targeted the store precisely because it is in a predominantly Black neighborhood – made all the poorer by the lack of opportunity like that afforded by a new stadium.

That lack of opportunity fuels poverty and joblessness. Those socially created afflictions, in turn, fuel the stereotypes that drove the Buffalo shooter and that drive other racists.

A meaningful CBA can address that.

But Pitts notes one key difference between what the Council accomplished and what’s being talked about now. Linking Council members’ priorities to the downtown-centric efforts being pushed by the administration – a strategy Pitts said was also used to advance the Pratt-Willert and other housing developments – involved only the city.

The stadium CBA, by contrast, also involves Orchard Park and the rest of Erie County. That raises questions of how regionalism can help the city address inequities like those exposed by the Tops massacre.

“How can the money be used to address many of the longstanding issues that are still out there?” said Pitts, who became Council majority leader and president before forming his own development company and serving as a research fellow at the University at Buffalo’s Center for Urban Studies.

“Stunned” by the nondisclosure process that muzzles public officials, he said the key for county legislators will be to “develop real dialogue; don’t play the political game.”

No time for fast talk

Freeman, who has covered the Bills since 1995 as a Buffalo Criterion sports columnist, a former WUFO Radio program host and now a cable TV show host, has been trying to push that kind of dialogue for years. He was part of group that proposed a waterfront stadium that could have been adapted to other Buffalo sites, and more recently has been a vocal member of the chorus whose calls for a downtown stadium fell on deaf governmental ears.

With the Orchard Park site a done deal from Day One, he used a recent Criterion column to try to change the public’s focus from simply being happy to keep the team here to demanding that any associated benefits be spread in ways “matching the diversity of our population.”

He’s pushing the same kinds of community benefits that Baskin has put on the table. But he’s also – based on what he’s seen of other teams while covering the league – raising questions about diversity in the Bills’ front office and game-day staffs, “especially when they’ve just put their hand out” for $850 million “in public benefits from everybody.” Those kinds of commitments also should be part of a CBA.

That means there’s lots to talk about but, thanks to the muzzle put on public officials, no indication how much has been seriously addressed as the next deadline looms.

But it’s more important to do this right than to do it quickly, especially given all the delays in even starting the negotiations.

It won’t be a problem if the entire package is pushed back a bit. It will be a huge problem if the County Legislature, with a public relations gun to its head, approves other parts of the deal while the CBA languishes and proponents of strong community commitments lose whatever leverage they now have.

The site of the new stadium was predetermined. But even located in Orchard Park, it can provide more opportunity – beyond parking cars and selling hot dogs – for city neighborhoods that desperately need them.

The Council long ago proved what can be done. The only question is: Will today’s County Legislature do it?

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Urban Affairs Editor/Columnist

I write a weekly column, most often about socioeconomic and political issues affecting people of color and the disadvantaged in Western New York.

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