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The Editorial Board: For a new Bills stadium, the share of public dollars will be both substantial and necessary

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Populous stadium depiction (copy) (copy)

A CAA Icon study commissioned by Pegula Sports Entertainment depicts what a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills might look like.

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As negotiations on the Buffalo Bills’ new stadium near the finish line, a chorus of complaints is swelling about the use of public money to pay for it. But the expected contribution is line with similar projects and, what is more, it’s worth it.

This has been a drawn-out saga and it’s attracting new scrutiny as the April 1 deadline nears for Gov. Kathy Hochul and the Legislature to reach agreement on the state budget, which is expected to include funding for a stadium.

The cost of building the new stadium in Orchard Park has been estimated at $1.4 billion, with sources saying $1 billion in public funding was expected, though Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz on Wednesday called the public funding figure inaccurate.

Whatever the exact figure, the investment of state dollars will be substantial. This is the cost of doing business in the National Football League. Highmark Stadium is showing its age and requires expensive upkeep. Its lease with Erie County expires after one more football season and the team’s owners, Terry and Kim Pegula, have said they would not renew the lease without agreement on a new stadium.

Pegula Sports & Entertainment never threatened publicly to relocate the team, but that possibility has been a specter hanging over the negotiations. At least nine NFL teams have relocated since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. There are other cities that would be happy to have the Bills, including Austin, Forth Worth and St. Louis, which was abandoned by both the Cardinals and Rams franchises. Toronto, London and Mexico City are other possibilities.

Skeptics of public funding for sports facilities point to studies showing that such deals do not return equal value to the community in economic benefit. While there is no dollar-for-dollar return on investment, keeping the Bills in Western New York is worth paying for.

Bills football is part of our common language in Western New York. Being a fan is belonging to a club that anyone can join, no matter their age, income level or whether they buy tickets to the games. It means something to have Jim Nantz, Joe Buck or Al Michaels broadcast a Bills game in front of a national TV audience.

Having a pro football team also produces a halo effect. Corporate recruiters say that the Bills help companies attract talent here from elsewhere. Plenty of cities have craft breweries and bike trails, but Buffalo has one of just 32 NFL teams.

The expected public share of the cost for the new stadium is within the range of deals made in other smaller NFL markets. A Buffalo News analysis in September found that for the nine new stadiums in the regions with the smallest populations, public funding paid for 73% of the cost. Using the round figures of $1 billion in public dollars for a $1.4 billion Bills stadium, that would be 71%.

Most stadium deals involve public money. Even in cases in which team ownership claims no public funds are involved, hidden costs are passed on to taxpayers, through complex tax breaks, below-market land deals and other sleights of hand. When the New York Yankees claimed that their new stadium was totally team-financed in the 2000s, a state Assembly report on the hidden costs to taxpayers called the deal “The House That You Built.” The real subsidy, it said, was as much as $1 billion.

Bills fans will also pick up a big part of the tab for the Pegulas’ contribution to the project, including the team’s requirement that season-ticket holders buy personal seat licenses for the new stadium. Those would raise at least $50 million.

The Pegulas can also apply for a loan from the league to help cover construction costs. Up to $150 million of that can be repaid by the league’s other 31 franchises, through the visiting team’s share of Bills ticket revenue – paid for by the fans.

Owning an NFL team is a nice business to be in. League revenue-sharing and the player salary cap allows Buffalo to compete with mega-market teams like the Dallas Cowboys or Los Angeles Rams.

The Pegulas don’t need to play hardball with the state or Erie County. Their leverage is understood. As Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economist and stadium financing expert, told The News last year, “the Pegulas could always take the team to a much bigger market if they want.”

It’s hard to imagine that Hochul, Polocarz or anyone else in state or local government can want their legacy to include losing the Bills – not even downstate legislators who mistakenly root for those “New York” teams that play in the swamps of New Jersey.

Thanks to the imminent stadium deal, we can expect Buffalo will remain a major league city for many years to come.

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