The Buffalo Bills and Erie County had hoped to start construction on major renovations at Ralph Wilson Stadium early next year, but that's not likely to happen as they shift their focus toward finalizing a one-year stadium lease extension.
County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said Wednesday he believes that a short-term deal to extend the terms of the existing lease by a year can be worked out quickly but that it is not likely major stadium construction will start during the 2013 off-season.
"The goal was to get a lease done this year so we could have shovels in the ground, so that fans of the Buffalo Bills who attend games for the 2013 season would see changes at Ralph Wilson Stadium before the start of that season," Poloncarz said.
"In all likelihood, that's not going to happen now."
Meanwhile, state officials sought Wednesday to clarify their role in the negotiations, objecting to a characterization by the chief executive officer of the Bills that talks are "in a stalled holding pattern."
"If taxpayers are going to be asked for substantial financial support for stadium improvements, they must be assured of a long-term commitment by the Bills to stay in Buffalo regardless of future ownership," Lt. Gov. Robert J. Duffy said in a statement released by the Governor's Office.
Extracting a long-term commitment from the Bills to stay in the region in exchange for public funding for major upgrades to the county-owned stadium has been at the center of negotiations, which started early this year, to renew a lease agreement that expires in July 2013.
A proposal from the Bills for more than $200 million in renovations to the stadium would take three off-seasons to complete, Poloncarz said, starting with "refreshing the concession stands and the restrooms" next year, had the county, the state and the Bills been able to reach a deal before a series of National Football League meetings this fall.
The start of major construction would now likely be pushed back until 2014 once a long-term lease deal is reached, Poloncarz said.
Poloncarz and Bills CEO Russ Brandon expressed frustration this week that negotiations have fallen behind an aggressive timetable to reach a deal in time to present a proposal to NFL owners this fall to get approval for league funding.
That deadline has been missed, and representatives for all three parties - the county, the state and the Bills - have not met all together since June 29.
Instead, they are now focused on arranging a one-year extension of the lease to allow discussions over a long-term deal to continue.
"We're going to continue to move ahead, and I feel confident we're going to get an extension done," Poloncarz said.
"And once the extension's done, it at least gives us some certainty that there's no gun at our head with days running out until the lease is done. The Bills need the certainty. We need the certainty, so that's why it's important that we get an extension done."
Poloncarz said that a one-year lease extension would not put an end to negotiations over a long-term deal.
"It's a complicated, three-party agreement," the county executive said.
"And you've got to have everybody on the same page, and I'll say this: We're not on the same page with everything with the Buffalo Bills at this point, just like the state's not on the same page with the Buffalo Bills or Erie County. We're getting there."
Poloncarz said county representatives are scheduled to meet with state officials to discuss the lease negotiations next week. He made his remarks Wednesday during a news conference held in response to a report in The Buffalo News about delays in negotiations.
That article noted that three negotiating meetings have been canceled or delayed in recent months.
Despite the fact that all three parties have not met together since late June, both Poloncarz and state officials said they have been in "constant" contact with the Bills.
The Cuomo administration last month hired a sports negotiating consultant and attorney to work on the deal and has assigned Duffy to play a leading role in the talks. Duffy, in the statement, said the state has been "actively negotiating in good faith with the Bills."
"The state is committed to keeping the Bills in Buffalo," said Joshua J. Vlasto, a spokesman for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. "The county has said they are committed to keeping the Bills in Buffalo. The only party that has not said they are committed to keeping the Bills in Buffalo is the Bills."