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Buffalo Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. made front-page headlines the day he announced his team wouldn’t play in its Orchard Park stadium after its lease expired.
“When it was built, it was a great stadium, an ideal stadium,” Wilson told The Buffalo News. “But things change over the years.”
Wilson made those comments 23 years ago.
It was August 1989, and he was talking about the lease that would expire nine years later, in 1998.
Fast-forward to 2012, when the 39-year-old Ralph Wilson Stadium has become the sixth oldest of 31 National Football League stadiums.
Once again, the stadium has become the focal point in sticky lease negotiations among the Bills, New York State and Erie County.
Close observers of the negotiations say there’s been a sense that the next long-term lease, expected to be 10 years long, may be the last one at the county-owned facility.
By the time a new lease would be up, presumably in 2023, the stadium would be 50 years old. In the world of National Football League stadiums, that’s ancient.
Many Bills fans have been clamoring for years for a new stadium, in locales ranging from downtown Buffalo to Niagara Falls to even Batavia. That still seems like a long shot, though, with an expected price tag of more than $800 million.
Last fall, Wilson himself admitted that the stadium needs a lot of work, as he lobbied for extensive renovations.
“We want the state and the county to put some substantial money into fixing this stadium up,” he said. “It’s crumbling right now. But we don’t want a Taj Mahal. We just want a nice, clean place to watch a football game.”
Since that comment, the Bills have asked for stadium renovations costing between $200 million and $220 million. Some observers say that won’t be enough to ensure the stadium’s long-term viability in the NFL.
“If ‘The Ralph’ is renovated as recently discussed, the life expectancy is still a very short five to 10 years, tops,” said John Vrooman, sports economist at Vanderbilt University. “The renovations necessary to bring ‘The Ralph’ up to NFL speed would be more in the ballpark of those recently completed for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2010 and the Green Bay Packers in 2003.”

Fixing older venues

Among the five stadiums older than Ralph Wilson Stadium, two – Kansas City and Green Bay – will have undergone close to $400 million in renovations by next year and another, San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, will be replaced by a $1.2 billion stadium in 2014.
The other two aging stadiums, in Oakland and San Diego, house teams that, like the Bills, face long-term questions about where they will play.
Twenty-one of the 31 NFL stadiums have been built in the last two decades, as team owners have sought to maximize revenues that don’t have to be shared with other teams – like profit-generating restaurants, suites and club seats.
How feasible is a new stadium here?
Anyone buying the Bills after Wilson’s death and then building a new stadium in Western New York likely would invest considerably more than $1 billion, based on recent team values and stadium costs.
If they were put up for sale, the Bills likely would fetch somewhere in the neighborhood of $800 million, with a like amount probably needed to build a new stadium that meets 21st century NFL standards.
“A new stadium would cost an exorbitant amount of money, although I would like it, and many others in Western New York and southern Ontario would like it,” former County Executive Dennis C. Gorski said. “But realistically, I don’t think it’s in the cards.”
Meanwhile, Ralph Wilson Stadium keeps aging, even as some of the newer NFL stadiums have been replaced.
Just look at what’s happened in Detroit since the Bills’ stadium opened in Orchard Park in 1973. Two years later, in 1975, the Lions opened the $55.7 Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich. By the mid-1990s, the stadium already was aging out of the NFL. The Lions now play in the $440 million Ford Field, and the Silverdome sold for $583,000 three years ago.
Or take Indianapolis, where the RCA Dome, which opened in 1984 at a price tag of $77.5 million, has been demolished and the Colts now play in the $720 million Lucas Oil Stadium.
Then there’s Foxborough, Mass., where the New England Patriots opened the $7 million, open-air Schaefer Stadium in 1971. Ten years ago, it was torn down, replaced by the $397 million Gillette Stadium.

Hefty price tags

These aren’t the exceptions. Nine cities have seen two NFL stadiums built since 1970, including Dallas and East Rutherford, N.J., where teams now play in megastadiums that cost more than $1 billion each.
In other cities, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to upgrade old stadiums. In Chicago, where Soldier Field was once the oldest NFL stadium, $655 million was spent in 2003 to completely rebuild it inside its old shell.
George T. Heery, an Atlanta architect whose firm designed what was then known as Rich Stadium, said its size and the fact that it was built as an open-air stadium solely for football have helped it survive. At the time, Heery said, NFL attendance was not nearly as high as it is today, and many cities sought to combine football and baseball in one venue.
“It was built the right size to start with, and it will forever be a good football stadium,” Heery said. “What it won’t have is a lot of fancy tricks that some of these NFL owners seem to be trying to outdo each other with.”
Some observers think Ralph Wilson Stadium can be the long-term home of the Bills.
“The stadium is very viable, because there have been improvements every year, both structural as well as cosmetic,” Gorski said. “Yes, the stadium is old, but its sight lines are good, and it’s a single-purpose stadium.”
There are two issues here. First, making sure that the stadium doesn’t crumble. Second, making sure it’s viable in the new NFL.
New York State and Erie County have poured more than $100 million into stadium renovations and maintenance over the last 15 years. That work, said County Public Works Commissioner John C. Loffredo, has helped keep up with the needs of fans and public safety.
“We’re not going to spend money on a stadium that has a life span of two years,” said Loffredo, a professional engineer. “That’s not the situation here.”
Heery, who has worked on more than 100 stadiums across the country, said open-air, single-purpose football stadiums can withstand time.
“By and large, they all stand up pretty well almost indefinitely if they are maintained in any kind of reasonable level,” Heery said.

Study results awaited

The county has hired an engineering firm to test how well the stadium has weathered over time. The results are expected sometime next month.
Loffredo estimates the physical structure of the concrete stadium, if properly maintained, could last another 20 to 35 years. But, he said, he’s not speaking to potential demands of NFL owners and fans.
“Will it be viable at 75 years the way it is now? I don’t know,” Loffredo said.
The Bills also hired a design firm, Populous, to assess renovation options but ruled out as too costly either construction of a new stadium or the type of large-scale retrofit renovation done in Kansas City.
While the future of Ralph Wilson Stadium remains unclear, one thing is certain: Despite the public money spent on construction and renovations, it is among the cheapest still operating in the NFL.
Two key figures in the opening of the new “Rich Stadium,” former Erie County Executive Edward V. Regan and former County Attorney James L. Magavern, both noted that the stadium was built under budget and on time, costing about $22 million and opening for the 1973 preseason.
“It was a relatively inexpensive stadium to start with,” Magavern said.
The idea that the Bills are seeking $200 to $220 million in stadium renovations – for a stadium that cost $22 million to build in 1973 dollars – seemed out of whack to Regan, now living in New York City.
“That’s outrageous,” he said. “That’s just simply outrageous.”

email: gwarner@buffnews.com and djgee@buffnews.com