On the surface, the proposal seems almost too good to be true: a 72,000-seat stadium, with a retractable roof, a convention center and a sports and culture museum, all part of a $1.4 billion project that would lure hundreds of thousands of visitors to the outer harbor, while ensuring the Bills’ long-term future in Buffalo.
But the devil is in the details, and many community leaders think the proposal is too good to be true, especially since project leaders are asking for a public commitment of waterfront land.
Those principals, Nicholas J. Stracick and George F. Hasiotis, say the key to moving forward is obtaining an option for up to a year on 167 acres of publicly owned land on the outer harbor.
“I truthfully think all they’re interested in is the land,” County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said of Stracick’s group. “He’s trying to get the land because of the value that’s there. If you notice, he said give me the land, and then I’ll announce the parties that are involved. That’s not how you go about it.”
Hasiotis replied that the land option would be limited, to nine to 12 months, enough to study traffic, parking, environmental and other impacts. And he told Erie County legislators last month that if the group obtains an option on the land, the project would become “more bankable and more fundable.”
“Anybody who questions that is either not informed or is irresponsible, because it’s a no-cost, win-win proposition, at no expense to the public,” Hasiotis added.
Close to a dozen local community leaders were asked to weigh in on the project, and skepticism emerged as the overwhelming consensus.
“I think it’s a very interesting concept, whose feasibility for many, many reasons is questionable,” Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, said of the Stracick-Hasiotis plan unveiled in October. “I think that they need to answer some fundamental questions.”
Higgins was more polite than others. Some called the proposal unrealistic and a pipe dream.
These community leaders expressed several fundamental concerns and objections about the plan:
• No disclosure of financial commitments. Based on other similar projects, the company has said the state might pay about $400 million, the National Football League $200 million to $400 million, and the construction trades hundreds of millions more.
• A lack of support from either the Bills or the NFL.
• The difficulty in procuring an option for the outer harbor site owned by the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.
• Major transportation and parking headaches for 72,000 people heading to and from a Bills game on the outer harbor, which has limited access.
• Questioning whether a football stadium is the best use of the waterfront.
“It’s unrealistic to think that anybody who’s not a multibillionaire is going to be able to pull this off,” said Jordan Levy, former chairman of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. “I love the energy. I love the vision, but it’s unrealistic. It’s going to take a huge government subsidy and a tenant who has the wherewithal. They have neither.”
The group president is Stracick, a former umpire and City Court marshal. He sued Walt Disney Co. with the claim that Disney had stolen an idea he and a partner pitched for a sports complex at the Florida theme park. A jury awarded the two $240 million, but the verdict was tied up by appeals. Stracick and the partner later settled with Disney for an undisclosed amount.
“I’d love to see something like this happen,” said County Legislator Joseph C. Lorigo, a West Seneca Conservative. “I just don’t know if these are the people to put this together.”
Stracick, in a recent meeting with county legislators, said he was undeterred by detractors.
“If you don’t want to vote yes on it, watch me do it, bottom line,” Stracick told the lawmakers, recounting his role in the Disney battle. “I’m one guy, but I’ve gotten it done so far, and I’ll get it done, believe you me.”
Why are so many people skeptical about the project?
“I think, unfortunately, that we have our group of friendly little oligarchs here,” Hasiotis said, referring to the same small group that takes an active role in such development. “They’re all our friends and neighbors, but it’s either their way or the highway. That is not healthy, and that’s been the problem in Buffalo for probably 50 years.”
He and others cited several recent developments:
• The Buffalo Common Council on Tuesday voted its unanimous support for exploring the feasibility of the proposal. Project organizers also made a presentation to Western New York’s state legislators.
• Last month, Stracick made a $25,000 contribution to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s re-election campaign; Hasiotis plans to meet soon with Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy to discuss the proposal.
• Hasiotis said the revenue generated by the project can dwarf the revenue from fewer than 10 NFL Sundays, citing a similar project in Indianapolis, which has generated $2.2 billion in direct economic impact in five years.
“We’re turning this whole model of professional football upside down,” he explained. “We’re not going to be subsidizing the Buffalo Bills. We’re actually going to provide a quantifiable return on the public investment.”
Part of that project would be the North American Museum of Sports and Culture, to be operated by the Strong Museum, which attracts more guests to downtown Rochester than the Bills’ annual home games.
“At first, this idea seemed like science fiction, but given the fortunate site, the urgent timing, the careful preliminary planning and the possibility of co-anchoring the international gateway with a stadium and a sports and culture museum, this has grown into a plausible, mature idea,” said Scott G. Eberle, vice president for play studies at Strong.
Others, though, questioned all the unknowns about the project, especially the funding, the outer harbor land transfer and the parking and transportation issues.
“If we could pull this off, it would be absolutely incredible for our community,” said County Legislator Edward A. Rath III, R-Amherst. “But right now, it’s a lot of wishful thinking and not much realistic reasoning.”
Even the most skeptical welcomed the proposal, for sparking a communitywide dialogue now – not during deadline-pressured stadium negotiations – about the prospects for a new stadium, whether it’s in downtown Buffalo or elsewhere.
“They have stimulated public discussion about a new stadium,” Higgins said of Hasiotis and Stracick. “That, in itself, is good.”
Community leaders differ on the need for a new stadium.
“I do think that the governor is correct that we have to study building a stadium,” Levy said. “If we do not build a new stadium in the next five to 10 years, you can say goodbye to the Buffalo Bills. I don’t think there’s any doubt about it.”
Poloncarz said the county has done some preliminary work to identify potential sites for a stadium in the city. The new 10-year lease for county-owned Ralph Wilson Stadium sets aside money starting in 2018 to explore the options.
“The bones of the stadium are good,” Poloncarz said. “The question is, can you continually have, at that point, a 50-year facility host this team? I don’t know. We know that we can do it for another 10 years.”