ALBANY – Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz was sounding confident Wednesday after what he described as “significant talks” Tuesday night by representatives of the county, state and Buffalo Bills about keeping the team from leaving town.
Poloncarz said earlier discussions about a short-term, one-year deal to give the sides more time to resolve issues are now off the table, and all sides are focused on a multiyear effort that would include public financing – including capital and some operating costs – for the team in return for a commitment to stay.
“It’s a complicated deal. I like the position we’re in, but we’re not there yet,” Poloncarz said Wednesday in an interview with The Buffalo News at the State Capitol.
Poloncarz would not say, as some county sources have indicated, that a deal had been imminent before Superstorm Sandy hit in October.
The negotiations did take what Poloncarz said was an understandable back seat to Sandy’s recovery efforts, because the two leading negotiators for the state – Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy and State Operations Director Howard Glaser – were heavily involved in downstate storm matters.
“When Hurricane Sandy hit, that was the No. 1 priority, truthfully, for all New Yorkers,” said Poloncarz, who was in Albany for an economic development meeting. He added, “So I’m not going to make any criticism of them walking away when Hurricane Sandy hit because it was the No. 1 priority not only for New York State but, truthfully, every community on the East Coast.”
As a result of the storm, there was a three-week halt in the daily phone conversations and emails among state, county and team negotiators. State and county officials say the talks have now resumed.
Joshua Vlasto, a spokesman for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, and Scott Berchtold of the Bills both declined to comment Wednesday afternoon.
While Poloncarz did not provide details about the talks, his choice of words about a possible deal – like “when” an agreement happens, not “if” – were revealing.
“We made a lot of progress,” the county executive said.
He said the talks are complicated, and if there is a final deal, it will entail multiple documents that will be well in excess of six inches high.
“It all comes down to we want to ensure this team’s here for a significant time period, so if we’re going to invest public dollars to renovate Ralph Wilson Stadium and assist the Bills with operating assistance as we have in the past, then we also want to ensure they’re there for some period,” he said.
Poloncarz described Tuesday night’s negotiating session as “significant” and “very good.”
Some observers have theorized the Bills may want a short-term deal because of health problems confronting Ralph Wilson, the team’s aging owner, and ownership issues that may arise upon his death.
But Poloncarz said he believes all sides – the county, state and team – are committed to a longer-term deal instead of a temporary, one-year type of arrangement. “There was a discussion at one point,” he said of a shorter-term arrangement, “but I think everyone realizes why do a short-term lease if we can get a long-term lease done now.”
Four times during the interview, Poloncarz repeated the phrase: “I like the position we’re in.”
But he said the sides also have agreed not to make any announcement on a potential deal.
There also has been speculation about possible ownership groups forming that may make offers to buy the team when Wilson dies. But the county executive said he’s had no talks with any such entities.
“We are negotiating and dealing with the Buffalo Bills organization, starting with Ralph Wilson to the CFO [chief financial officer] Jeff Littmann and CEO [chief executive officer] Russ Brandon. There’s no talk of anyone else, nor am I aware of anything with regards to a successor organization,” he said.
Poloncarz said Wilson is doing everything he can to keep the team in Buffalo. “He could have left many years ago. He’s had a long-standing commitment to this community, and he’s proven that commitment once again by wanting to ensure that this team is here for many years to come,” he said.