A $1.4 billion stadium and convention center on the Buffalo waterfront.
A $500 million outlet mall off the Thruway in Chautauqua County.
It sure has been a big week for thinking big, but big dreams don’t always lead to big results.
Let’s start with the most realistic dream, the Seneca Nation’s outlet mall in the Town of Hanover, off of Thruway Exit 58. Seneca Nation President Robert Odawi Porter and Nation Council Chairman Richard E. Nephew took the wraps off the project on Thursday. They said an unidentified national retailing expert had completed a feasibility study during the summer showing that putting an outlet mall on the 108-acre site would be a “viable economic opportunity.”
Viable, in the sense that 30,000 to 40,000 cars pass by the site on the Thruway each day, offering a steady stream of potential shoppers that wouldn’t be put off by the mall’s out-of-the-way location. Sounds much like the always-busy Waterloo Premium Outlets, in an off-the-beaten-path site between Thruway exits 41 and 42.
But there’s a big catch: The two Seneca politicians backing the mall proposal are both up for re-election. If they lose, there’s a good chance the mall proposal goes down with them. Nephew is running for president against four other candidates, while Porter, his running mate, is seeking to become the Nation’s treasurer against two opponents.
That makes the whole outlet mall proposal sound, more like a campaign promise than anything else — at least until we know the results of the Nation’s Nov. 6 election.
But the Seneca’s outlet mall proposal is downright meaty compared with the $1.4 billion dream to build a retractable roof football stadium for the Buffalo Bills, along with a convention center on the city’s waterfront. That proposal, which got a formal airing before the Buffalo Common Council on Tuesday, has more holes in it than the Bills’ defense.
For starters, it would be nice if the people behind the Greater Buffalo Sports & Entertainment Complex had bothered to find out if the key players in the project are even remotely interested in it before they trotted out their nifty artist’s rendering of the project.
You can’t help but be skeptical of projects that depend on someone else’s money, built on someone else’s land, and involve moving someone else’s business.
Is it any wonder, than, that Buffalo Bills President Russ Brandon, whose team would have to move to the waterfront stadium, called the proposal a “non-starter?”
It also would have been a good idea to talk first with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who would be asked to contribute about $400 million toward the project. Same thing for the NFL, which the project’s backers are expecting to chip in $200 million to $250 million. Or the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which owns the land.
Then there are the details — and some of the backers’ promises are real whoppers.
They claim the project would create 10,000 jobs and generate an annual payroll of $900 million. That means the jobs would pay an average of $90,000 a year. Sound realistic to you?
Because the project would be built by a unionized work force, its backers say there would be so many jobs created by the complex that there wouldn’t be enough local workers to fill all of them.
George F. Hasiotis, vice president of the development group, told the Common Council that union workers from as far away as 100 miles would have to be brought to Buffalo just to meet the demand for union labor.
Nicholas J. Stracick, the company president, told the Council the project could fill 2,000 hotel rooms. Well, there are around 2,500 hotel rooms in downtown Buffalo now, according to Visit Buffalo Niagara, and Smith Travel Research reports that those rooms are occupied about two-thirds of the time. Sound like there’s demand for 80 percent more?
In fairness, Hasiotis did tell the Council that Buffalo probably would be chosen to host the Super Bowl within two to three years of the stadium opening.
Then there’s the parking. The proposal includes 5,000 parking spaces — for a stadium that would seat 72,000 — on a remote site that’s not served by the Metro Rail. Stracick says the plan could add another 5,000 surface parking spots, but he didn’t say where. Even then, that’s seven people for every parking spot.
Stracick also told the Council he knows sponsors who could provide additional funding for the complex. But he won’t say who they are until his group secures an option on the land for the project.
That’s a chilling thought. Ask the good people of Niagara Falls how it worked out after handing blocks of prime downtown land over to developers who came to town 14 years ago with a grand plan. They’re still waiting for something — anything — to happen.
“The clock of destiny is ticking and we must make a swift and wise decision,” said Pat Freeman, the sports director at WUFO-AM in Buffalo, who backs the waterfront project.
The wise decision would be to wait for a better idea.