What does $130 million buy at Ralph Wilson Stadium?
A new entrance plaza with a larger team store on Abbott Road. A stadium wired with fiber optics. Restrooms with live game sound. Updated suites, kitchens to prepare more food options, a second video scoreboard and an expanded concourse on the east end of the stadium.
The list goes on.
What it won't buy is a major overhaul of the 40-year-old stadium.
“It's not a 'wow,' it's to upgrade it, make it functional, make it work,” Deputy County Executive Richard Tobe said of the sum dedicated in the new lease agreement for stadium improvements. “But it's not like there's a whopping new thing. It's the same stadium."
Yet what stands out, according to a national expert on NFL teams, is putting $25.3 million into new technology in the stadium, including a second high-definition video display board at a cost of $8.8 million and updating the way data can be distributed throughout the stadium.
“Technology improvements are vital to enhancing the in-stadium experience and making it more competitive with the at-home experience,” said Marc Ganis, a consultant for SportsCorp Ltd. who tracks the NFL.
Tobe agreed that what fans will notice most is the upgraded technology that will increase opportunities for high-definition television throughout the stadium.
“The whole place will feel fresher and cleaner and newer,” Tobe said.
A tentative agreement between the Buffalo Bills, New York State and Erie County would put $130 million worth of design work and construction into the county-owned stadium during the next two years, updating technology, improving fan areas and repairing a structure that is now among the oldest in the National Football League.
The age of the stadium – it is the sixth oldest in the league and one of four built before 1992 that hasn't undergone hundreds of millions of dollars in renovations – weighed heavily on the minds of state and county negotiators as they sat across the table from Bills executives.
The Bills came to the table with a $230 million plan, Tobe said. That would have bought three major new structures on the west end and at the 50-yard lines to open up stadium space and add concession areas and more restrooms. The idea was to draw crowds into those areas to alleviate narrow stadium concourses, Tobe said.
But with a $100 million price tag for the three additions, county officials worried that they wouldn't see the return on the public investment if the stadium became obsolete beyond the next decade.
“The conclusion in the end was, let's look into the future toward a new stadium, divert some money so we have it and not put money into this,” Tobe said. “So those three items come out, $100 million comes off the table.”
What was left is a long list of renovations that will address everything from upgrading lighting in the concourses to adding a wrought-iron security fence surrounding the stadium. Design work is not yet complete, but among the most visible changes will be an Abbott Road plaza that will feed fans into the stadium area.
“It will be a far more attractive gateway entry,” Tobe said.
Inside the stadium, suites, restrooms and concession stands will be updated. New club seats will replace an old press box. The main concourse on the east end of the stadium will be expanded and new “destination concession and restroom areas” will be added to the upper concourse.
“The list of activities seems more like it falls into a modernization with modest upgrades, rather than a renovation,” said Ganis, the consultant for SportsCorp.
The technology improvements matter to the team, Ganis said, because the Bills ticket sales must contend with home viewing where fans can access a trove of statistics, game highlights and analysis while watching the game on a big-screen TV.
“The Bills in the stadium are competing against the at-home experience to watch the Bills and the Patriots and the 49ers and the Bears and the Browns and every other team in the NFL,” Ganis said. “The at-home experience has become so good that it now directly competes with the in-stadium experience.”
County officials hope some construction can begin later this year, with the bulk of the work at Ralph Wilson Stadium starting in 2014 and wrapping up by late 2015, said County Public Works Commissioner John Loffredo. Those target dates, however, depend on a fast-track schedule for lease approvals, project design work and bidding.
The terms of the lease – spelled out in a memorandum of understanding and a nonrelocation agreement – still need approval from the Erie County Legislature, state agencies and NFL owners.
County finance staff are also exploring exactly how the county will borrow its $40.7 million share of the $130 million project, as well as when debt payments will begin to impact the county's budget and whether a tax increase would be needed once those payments come due.
County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz built estimated debt payments for the lease deal into his four-year financial plan for the county without future tax increases. Those projections, however, relied on a proposed tax increase that was turned down by legislators late last year.
“If this year's tax increase had gone into effect as the county executive had requested, he was projecting that there would not be a need for an additional tax increase on account of the Bills deal,” Tobe said.
Those projections will be revised later this month.
The state will pay $53.9 million toward the $130 million renovation project, while the Buffalo Bills are expected to contribute $35.5 million.
That's just the cost of the up-front stadium renovation. The total deal – which would also continue to reimburse the Buffalo Bills for game day and stadium operating expenses, as well as provide the team with a $3 million annual “working capital” subsidy – will cost the state and the county $226 million during the next 10 years, according to the county's calculations. That includes annual stadium maintenance, but not interest the county will pay on the money it borrows for the work.
The last lease – a 15-year deal that will expire in July 2013 – will have cost the state and the county about $215 million by the time it is complete.
The county's negotiating team, Tobe said, had to weigh the potential economic and emotional loss to the community should the team look toward leaving Orchard Park under a new owner.
“It would hurt here a lot,” Tobe said. “So we were trying to find the right balance. You can't give the team everything or unlimited amounts, but you also can't ignore that's an important part of the decision.”
What negotiators also came to understand is that the proposed lease for Ralph Wilson Stadium may be its last as the demands of the NFL – and a potential new owner – evolve.
“If we want a team in Buffalo, not just in 2012 or 2013 or 2023, but if we want a team in Buffalo in 2043, we're going to have to have a new stadium eventually,” Poloncarz recently told The News. “And at the end of this new lease, Ralph Wilson Stadium will be approximately 50 years old, and that's time for a new stadium.”