Roadies were setting up for this weekend’s Billy Joel concert, sidestepping carts that motored through the lone service tunnel from the parking lot to the field, when it began to drizzle Friday afternoon at Highmark Stadium.
Just a sprinkle.
That’s all it took to create a dripping leak from overhead as top-level officials from the Buffalo Bills and their parent company, Pegula Sports & Entertainment, guided journalists from The Buffalo News on an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour to illustrate their concerns with the structure and its shortcomings.
“Many people believe you can renovate the stadium,” PSE spokesman Jim Wilkinson said, asserting the required work for a full-scale renovation would cost at least $1 billion, compared to $1.4 billion for a new stadium. “That’s just not realistic.”
Someone quickly placed an orange cone in the middle of the tunnel, a warning to be mindful of the puddling slip hazard, which rendered the space even tighter and demonstrated the larger issue that Bills and PSE officials said they have with the nearly 50-year-old facility, which was built in 1972 and is leased from Erie County: It’s drip-drip-dripping to the end of its useful life, Bills and PSE executives insist, with one issue after another forming a deeper well of problems that they say can only be solved by building a new stadium.
The existing facility is safe for now, according to DiDonato Associates, which based its findings on research and inspections conducted in late 2020 and early 2021.
But the Buffalo engineering and architecture firm, which was hired by Erie County, identified pressing issues with the 300-level upper deck – recommending replacing the seating panels and supports within five to seven years – as well as with the stadium’s water and electrical systems and a ring wall where the lower bowl meets the field.
A rough draft of its 247-page report, titled “Highmark Stadium Condition Study 2020,” was obtained by The News and provides a detailed evaluation of the stadium, including its main structural support, seating, concourses, restrooms, doorways, suites, walkways, electricity, plumbing and more.
The study identified and cataloged structural, architectural, mechanical and site deficiencies, the report notes, adding that it is not a comprehensive, long-term viability study for Highmark Stadium.
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, responding to questions from The News, noted in a statement that the upper deck was reinforced three years ago.
“Ensuring the health and safety of our citizens is the highest priority for Erie County, and that includes the fans and everyone else inside the football stadium or any building owned by Erie County,” Poloncarz said. “Based on recommendations from structural engineers, in 2018, approximately $2.25 million was invested in the stadium to enhance and renovate the stadium’s upper decks to help eliminate any potential risk to public safety for the foreseeable future.
“If there was any question regarding the safety of the facility, we would not let any attendee into it for a game or other event.”
A representative from DiDonato Associates, which conducted similar studies in 2015-16 and updated in 2019, was not available to comment.
The Bills have an operations staff of about 20 people who work with county employees, consultants and outside contractors to address issues as they crop up, at a cost of millions in repair bills per year.
“The stadium is safe for fans,” Wilkinson said. “It’s safe because of the 365-day-a-year work by the county and the engineers here who work so well together.”
But the Bills’ lease at Highmark Stadium expires in mid-2023 – after two football seasons – and PSE, New York State and Erie County must decide how to proceed.
Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula want to build a new stadium near the current venue for a cost of $1.4 billion in a public-private partnership, Wilkinson said, putting PSE on the record for the first time about the projected cost of the project. Building a new stadium would not displace the team like a full-scale renovation of Highmark Stadium.
Ron Raccuia, PSE executive vice president, also issued his first public comments on the matter Friday, noting that the Pegulas “want to win, and they have continued to provide the resources necessary to do so.”
“When it comes to the future new home of the Bills, they have always known that, like virtually all NFL stadiums, this will ultimately be some form of a public-private partnership,” Raccuia said.
But it’s clear some of those directly involved in negotiations are hesitant to embrace the 10-figure price tag, much or most of which the Pegulas want publicly funded.
Wilkinson said the Pegulas have invested $146 million in the stadium and team facilities since buying the Bills in 2014 and are no longer willing to pour millions into an aging stadium they don’t own.
“Time is running out,” Wilkinson said.
Among the findings in the DiDonato report:
• The 50-year-old stadium is safe right now, but its condition is trending in a troubling direction. The report says: “Although there continues to be various issues throughout the complex, the Stadium currently remains in overall fair to good condition with some elements in fair condition but trending towards poor including the upper deck seating panels and support frames, the lower ringwall and lower bowl slab-on-grade.”
• Weather and age have taken a toll on the upper deck. Though it remains safe, the stadium’s top level is nearing the end of its lifespan.
The freeze-thaw cycle caused by decades of Buffalo winter ice have caused cracks and deterioration throughout the complex, and perhaps most noticeably on the upper deck. The use of de-icing salts and brining fluid have allowed chloride to seep into the concrete.
The result: The exterior of the concrete has deteriorated around the upper deck, and other parts of the stadium as well. These areas of spalling, as it is called, stretch like scars on the outside and undersides of the upper deck. They are regularly patched, but according to the DiDonato report and Bills officials, the rate of deterioration is accelerating.
“The most significant of the issues observed were the continued deterioration of the structure’s main sideline concrete frames and upper deck seating panels,” the report says, noting that the rate of deterioration in the frames has increased since the last study was conducted in 2015-16 and updated in 2019. And it’s likely to get worse because of “continued exposure to freeze/thaw cycles, de-icing salts, general weathering.”
That continued deterioration, the report noted, would likely result in the reconstruction of the upper deck “within the next five to seven years.”
• Multiple partial or full replacements are imminent. Those include the lower ring wall, which is showing signs of shifting and cracking, in the next five to 10 years; club suite roofs in the next five years; restroom tower roofs in the next two years; and a pair of drainage structures “in a timely manner,” the report said, “before they become a safety issue.”
Several components of the facility’s electrical and plumbing systems, some of which date to the stadium’s construction in the early 1970s, are nearing or well beyond their expected life of service.
PSE and Bills officials said a power outage temporarily shut down training camp Wednesday, and that game-day power and water outages are a constant concern because the stadium has a limited electrical infrastructure and single water supply.
• There is small stuff – lots of it.
On the cosmetic side: The report notes “numerous cracks and random patches” in the concrete concourse floor, which is mostly part of the original stadium construction, and “signs of wear” in the asphalt pavement. But it notes, “The complete replacement of the concourse floors will be costly and is not necessary for safety of patrons or the proper operation of the Stadium at this time.”
Instead, it recommends that cracking be monitored for “potential tripping hazards” and “consideration should be made to the complete replacement of the concourse floors should the condition degrade or as funding permits to improve the overall stadium aesthetic.”
Similar recommendations are made throughout the report for even the most minuscule of issues, such as replacing the bolts on aging seats – or in the case of 300-level seating that needs repair, noting the parts are 50 years old and no longer available.
The team has a salvage yard for some parts and has others custom manufactured.
• A struggle to meet standards. Most, if not all, of the issues facing Highmark Stadium are to be expected of a facility that is a half-century old. So, too, is this: It is grandfathered out of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance and falls short of NFL standards in key areas.
The stadium has limited seating for people with disabilities, and on the 300 levels, fans who use a wheelchair can only sit on the very top of the deck. That spot is reachable only by elevator – there are no ramps – and the team’s game-day staff is trained how to safely lift and carry a person in a wheelchair down the concrete steps in case of a power outage.
The stadium lights can only be accessed by crane, though the fixtures were all recently replaced to meet NFL standards.
The interior of Highmark Stadium also lacks staging areas for food preparation, event equipment, trash disposal and other behind-the-scenes needs, a deficiency that has required the construction of adjacent buildings and lines of Dumpsters ringing the outer concourse.
In many newer stadiums, this area would be built beneath the stands of the lower bowl. But Highmark’s lower bowl sits on solid earth — which also causes some of the shifting that is impacting the movement of the ring wall.
The DiDonato report does not specify the cost of its suggested repairs and upgrades.
But officials from the Bills and PSE conclude that it’s too expensive to renovate the facility, suggesting it would need to be stripped to the core and rebuilt, as happened in 2003 with Soldier Field in Chicago. The renovation of that facility, which opened in 1924, cost $690 million.
“It’s very clear the Pegulas want a new stadium,” Wilkinson said. “We think it’s clear that renovating this one’s not an option, and we want people to know that putting upwards of a billion dollars into renovating a stadium that they don’t own is simply not fair or going to happen.”