A plan to set aside a luxury suite in Ralph Wilson Stadium for the state to use to woo business executives and promote tourism has become a focus of controversy: Is it a legitimate economic development tool or a perk for state officials?
Assemblywoman Jane Corwin joined several voices this week that questioned the need for the state to have access to a stadium suite during Bills games. Her concerns echoed those of a downstate lawmaker and the editorial boards of three newspapers.
Corwin, in a letter to Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, said she has “grave concern that luxury box seats for state usage may be extremely inappropriate, if not in violation of existing state ethics laws.”
“It would be a great benefit to my understanding if you could provide a full and detailed explanation as to why or how this arrangement does not violate the state constitution or state ethics laws, including any legal memorandum addressing the issue, in addition to providing an explanation as to why a 12-seat luxury box is necessary to attract business to Western New York,” wrote Corwin, R-Clarence.
Corwin’s letter echoed a similar inquiry from Assemblyman James Brennan asking officials at the state’s economic development agency, Empire State Development Corp., to explain why the suite was part of a financial deal in which the state and county will contribute toward the cost of renovating the county-owned stadium.
“Such an arrangement raises significant concerns as to whether it is legal or permitted under state law, including the state constitution and the state ethics laws,” said Brennan, a Brooklyn Democrat who is chairman of the Assembly Standing Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions. Corwin also sits on that committee.
The planned state suite – to be named the “I Love NY Hospitality Center” – also drew notice from the editorial boards of the New York Post, the Post-Star of Glens Falls and the Syracuse Post-Standard.
“So taxpayers help fund upgrades for a stadium for a wealthy NFL owner – and they underwrite the governor’s men schmoozing with the high and mighty,” the New York Post wrote. “But, hey, that’s what the taxpayers are there for, right?”
Erie County and Empire State Development announced in December that the state would have access to a suite in Ralph Wilson Stadium to use for its “I Love New York” campaign as part of a 10-year lease agreement with the Buffalo Bills, but details of the arrangement only emerged last week when the lease documents were finalized.
A spokeswoman for Empire State Development provided the following statement in response to the questions raised by Brennan and Corwin and their planned review of the arrangement: “This agreement involving this state facility has been public for months. This review is merely an attempt to grab headlines.”
According to lease documents, an Empire State Development subsidiary, Erie County Stadium Corp., will have access to a suite with up to 16 seats for all Bills games and events. The suite is to be used for “encouraging and fostering economic development, tourism and public awareness for the City of Buffalo, Erie County and the State of New York,” as well as “charitable or public functions.”
The Bills will provide up to 16 tickets to the state for access to the suite on game days, as well as four parking passes, according to lease documents. The state will be required to pay for any food and beverage costs in the suite. State officials have said that use of the suite by state agencies or officials must be approved through Empire State Development.
Although the lease refers to a maximum capacity of 16 people in the stadium box, Empire State Development has said it will be a 12-person suite.
The Post-Star and the Post-Standard also questioned the need for the state to contribute $54 million toward the $130 million in planned stadium upgrades included in the lease.
“Cuomo’s willingness to throw $54 million into Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium is a stain on his fiscal crusader cape,” the editorial board of the Post-Star wrote. “We question the usefulness of a Buffalo Bills’ luxury box, apart from its wastefulness. The way the Bills have been playing, New York will have to pay spectators to sit in its fancy seats.”
Peter Anderson, a spokesman for Poloncarz, said Corwin’s questions about the arrangement were better directed to state officials. Erie County did not seek a suite during the lease negotiations.
“All of the details of the lease are available on the Erie County website,” Anderson said.
Corwin, in her letter, said she was “very pleased that an agreement was reached ensuring that, for the foreseeable future, Buffalo will continue to be the home of the Bills.”
“However, under no circumstances should taxpayers be paying for any public official to attend a professional sporting event,” Corwin wrote.