The question has been on the minds of every Buffalo Bills fan ever since National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell said the team needs a new stadium: Where should it be? Of course, that question is a lot like politics and religion, or the debate over Buffalo’s best chicken wings. Everybody has an opinion.
But in this case, some opinions – like those of real estate developers who have built big things themselves, or of preservationists who have fought to save Buffalo’s historic character – might weigh more heavily in the debate than others.
For that reason, The Buffalo News asked several developers, as well as one of the area’s leading preservationists, to offer ideas on where a new stadium ought to go.
Not surprisingly, The News found plenty of ideas and little consensus.
The News inquiry began as speculation about a stadium centered on downtown Buffalo sites in the Cobblestone District, the Old First Ward and the site of the Commodore Perry housing complex.
As Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula ramps up his exploratory efforts to buy the team, interest also revolves around his burgeoning “Pegulaville” complex at the foot of Main Street. Some reports link him and the Jacobs family’s Delaware North Cos. in such a venture.
Other attention surrounds proposals for the former Seneca Mall site and the outer harbor, while more general speculation involves the Central Terminal area. And some influential players continue to include Niagara Falls on the list of possible stadium sites.
As consultants hired by the state study specific sites and proposals – while Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz talk up possibly sticking with the current Bills stadium site in Orchard Park – the big questions include:
• Should a new stadium be located downtown or in the suburbs?
• Should it be part of a mega-project with ancillary attractions such as a convention center or shopping complex?
• Why build a new stadium at all when $130 million in renovations are underway at the Bills’ current home?
Judging from what The News found, there are even more possible answers to those questions than there are possible stadium sites. Here’s what the people interviewed had to say:
The former Buffalo Sabres president is just about the only developer in town who’s been on the front lines for the construction of a big new sports facility.
Quinn ran the Sabres in the 1990s as work was completed on what’s now known as First Niagara Center. And based on his experiences, he wonders if the Bills stadium debate might be a little bit premature.
“You have to have a business plan first,” Quinn noted.
And the Bills won’t have a new business plan until they have a new owner. The team is for sale following the death of its founder, Ralph C. Wilson Jr., and Quinn said the decision on a new stadium depends a great deal on who buys the team and how that person decides to make the most out of what’s likely to be something close to a $1 billion investment.
That decision will likely follow an in-depth study that will aim to answer several questions, Quinn said. The study will examine the team’s fan base and where its future fans are likely to come from. Similarly, it will examine the market for the luxury boxes that are a key part of the money-making model for every pro sports franchise. And it will take a look at how to maximize concession revenue while considering the team’s tailgating culture.
“You have to think: What is this business trying to accomplish?” Quinn said. “And your building should confirm to that.”
That’s just what happened with the Sabres’ new home. After completing its mid-1990s business plan, the team pushed for substantial changes in the plans for their new arena.
That being said, Quinn has a favorite general location for any new facility.
“Downtown makes a lot of sense for a lot of reasons,” he said, noting the growth that’s already gone on there and the availability of a decent amount of existing parking.
Howard A. Zemsky
The developer of the successful Larkinville project and other endeavors represents several perspectives: private businessman, Cuomo confidante, chairman of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, and co-chairman of the governor’s regional economic development organization.
Zemsky seems to reflect Cuomo’s growing caution about a new facility, but he’s also talking up a location that would be sure to infuriate that above-mentioned developer: Niagara Falls.
An upgraded Ralph Wilson Stadium, Zemsky said, “works well for Western New Yorkers, for the Bills and for the NFL.”
“If we don’t need to change that formula, let’s not,” he said.
Still, Zemsky said Cuomo is preparing for any eventuality, including a new stadium. The NFTA has met with site-selection consultants to understand how public transit might fit into any project, he said, and believes a downtown site in either Buffalo or Niagara Falls – especially Niagara Falls – would best fit economic development needs.
“I think of a stadium as a 50-year investment; we should keep in mind that just the projected growth of Ontario during the next 25 years alone is about 4 million people,” he said. “Given that we are a relatively small NFL market, that we are next to a large and rapidly growing metropolis like Toronto, that our binational location is one of our key strategic differentiators and that Niagara Falls is an internationally recognized icon – it’s certainly worthy of a close look as a possible new stadium site.”
Carl P. Paladino
Downtown’s biggest landlord knows Buffalo real estate as well as anyone.
He discounts Niagara Falls because of a host of transportation problems.
“I don’t see people sitting ad nauseam on those Grand Island bridges,” he said, also rejecting Batavia’s potential as a mid-way point between Buffalo and Rochester.
“You just add another hour to people coming from Canada,” he said, referring to the vast Southern Ontario market experts say looms as crucial to the team’s attendance goals.
“The only logical place is downtown Buffalo,” he said, mentioning the Shoreline Apartments along lower Niagara Street and the Commodore Perry projects between South Park Avenue and the Niagara Thruway.
Paladino said downtown already boasts 15,000 parking places about as close to potential stadium sites as are current lots in Orchard Park.
“It would be ideal for downtown, right where all the hotels and restaurants are,” he said.
Paladino said his site-selection experience as a Rite Aid drugstore developer around New York State tells him existing businesses will benefit from a downtown location. He also acknowledged that he owns property near the Perry Projects area but added he did not buy those properties 25 years ago with an adjacent football stadium in mind.
Rocco R. Termini
The developer of Hotel @ the Lafayette and other projects questions the need for a new stadium. He said Cuomo’s recent yellow flags about a new facility rightfully slow down increasing speculation, even if it remains a possibility.
“I know where I wouldn’t put it, and that’s on the waterfront,” Termini said. “I don’t want to use that as a parking lot and a stadium for 10 days a year. Public land should be used by the public.”
He doubts a downtown stadium will provide any economic stimulus for existing and new businesses.
“Look at the stadium in Orchard Park and the First Niagara Center,” he said. “What economic activity is spurred there?”
Still, Termini reflects continuing speculation when he looks to the Perry Projects and Cobblestone District specifically and the Old First Ward generally.
“There’s a lot of real estate there that’s not very valuable,” he said.
If a new stadium is to happen, Termini said, he agrees a comprehensive project must lead the plan.
“If it’s a megaproject ... then it makes sense,” he said. “But if it’s just a stadium, show me where it’s worked and prove me wrong.”
Scott R. Congel
The Syracuse native has proposed spending hundreds of millions of dollars for an extreme makeover of the vacant Seneca Mall property. Congel has acknowledged preliminary discussions with former Buffalo Sabres owner B. Thomas Golisano about a potential partnership to purchase the Bills that could feature a separate domed stadium adjacent to the “Seneca Place” site.
Congel, whose family’s Pyramid Cos. built Destiny USA in Syracuse and Walden Galleria in Cheektowaga, has insisted all along that he is thinking big because the NFL is doing the same.
Congel is also no longer speaking publicly about his ideas, but a source familiar with the project said Congel realizes that he stands a better chance with NFL owners if he can convince them his multi-use stadium proposal will earn more money.
That means a proposal for a domed stadium to accompany the Seneca Place concept of offices, hotels, theaters, concert venues and sports facilities. Instead of a stadium with eight or 10 games a year, the source said, Congel proposes a facility used 200 times a year and all its resulting revenue.
“And it brings economic development into the community for whatever public investment is being made,” the source said.
George F. Hasiotis
His group proposes a stadium and entertainment attraction on the city’s outer harbor.
While some city lawmakers like the idea, and Hasiotis has lined up major names in the stadium business, the idea has failed to gain traction.
That’s because influential public officials such as Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, oppose using lakefront property for a stadium. They point out that the outer harbor is being transferred from the NFTA to New York State for park use. In addition, access could be a problem for a stadium at the site.
But Hasiotis is emphasizing the importance of the NFL business model. The Amherst businessman insists that the league seeks much more than a simple and cheap stadium that hosts 10 football games per year.
He points to new complexes in Dallas and Indianapolis as well as plans for Minneapolis as models for Buffalo because of ancillary businesses and attractions. He says their purpose is simple: make more money. He said the community must think big – as in hosting a Super Bowl someday.
“The first test of your due diligence is: What is the NFL going to say?” he said. “In our case, we’ll have multiple anchors, and the NFL will be just a small piece of the revenue for the facility owners. There has to be a comprehensive vision with an economic underpinning because it can’t be just football.”
The president and CEO of Ciminelli Real Estate Corp., long one of the region’s leading developers, has a comprehensive vision for a new stadium at a site where it could make a big difference: Central Terminal.
He sees an outdoor football stadium as a centerpiece to the redevelopment of the region’s landmark shell of a train station, where trains could shuttle in Bills fans from as far away as Toronto and Syracuse.
“If it could be part of an overall master plan, it’s got an opportunity to redevelop an entire neighborhood,” Ciminelli said.
Such a facility would probably have to be open-air, said Ciminelli, who – like several other sources interviewed for this story – said the cost of a domed facility would probably be prohibitive.
Still, an open-air stadium could be part of a multi-use project aimed not only at reviving Central Terminal, but also the blocks surrounding it, he said.
Ciminelli is cool to some of the other possible stadium sites. He dismisses the idea of a waterfront stadium.
“It’s not the highest and best use of the land,” he said.
And he said a Niagara Falls stadium would suffer from the traffic “chokepoints” that are the Grand Island bridges.
And if a major project at Central Terminal proves to be unfeasible, Ciminelli suggests keeping the Bills right where they are.
“When people go and see the next iteration of upgrades at Ralph Wilson Stadium, they’re going to say: ‘This is pretty neat,’ ” he said. “It will have fan-friendly and business-friendly amenities.”
A developer who wished to remain nameless because of company policy suggested that the heart of the city is the only place where a new stadium truly makes sense.
Defining downtown broadly – as the territory north and south of the I-190 east of city’s high-rises – that developer said the area offers two distinct advantages.
“It’s easy to get to,” given the proximity of the I-190 and the Kensington Expressway, the developer said.
A downtown site would be nearly a half-hour closer than “The Ralph” would be for fans in the Southern Ontario and Rochester markets, which are likely to figure significantly in any new owner’s plans to broaden the Bills’ appeal.
What’s more, a downtown football stadium might broaden Buffalo’s appeal as well, the developer said.
The television shots from a blimp flying above a new stadium in Buffalo would show the city’s skyline and Lake Erie, and roving cameras during national television broadcasts might show all the bustling new attractions at the south end of the city’s downtown.
“You can’t buy advertising like that,” said the developer, who also noted: “Now they always show Niagara Falls – and it always makes me mad.”
The preservation and urban development expert has superimposed the current stadium campus in Orchard Park on various city locations, which has led him to question if any urban site can host such a facility.
He also wonders if a single-use stadium represents the wisest use of city land.
“A football stadium is a mammoth building that, on purpose, becomes a dead zone for 355 days a year,” he said, adding he has never seen any proof of stadiums as economic engines.
“Nothing can accommodate a football stadium without closing a lot of streets and losing a lot of buildings,” he said. “And it’s always the most powerless people who end up being affected.”
The first rule of such a facility should be “do no harm,” Tielman said, wondering why it should not remain in Orchard Park.
“I can’t think of a better place,” he said, “where it would not hurt anyone.”
The Bills’ new home
Six stadium sites, myriad options
1. Downtown Buffalo: Several developers said a downtown location – such as the Cobblestone District, the Old First Ward and the Commodore Perry housing complex – would offer easy access and plenty of existing parking, along with the opportunity to build on what’s happening nearby. But preservationist Tim Tielman wonders if any city site would be large enough to accommodate a stadium.
2. Buffalo’s outer harbor: Developer George F. Hasiotis is proposing a stadium and entertainment complex for this prime piece of waterfront land, saying such a signature project is exactly what the NFL is looking for in its new facilities. But Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, and several developers have said that a stadium would not be the best use for waterfront land – which, they said, should maximize public access.
3. Central Terminal: Developer Paul Ciminelli envisions a stadium plan that involves the renovation of the city’s long-dormant landmark train station, whereby trains would shuttle Bills fans into town from as far away as Toronto and Syracuse. Ciminelli said such a mixed-use project would revive a part of the city that’s in need of an uplift, but other developers say the inner-city location is too far away from Buffalo’s highways.
4. West Seneca: Syracuse developer Scott R. Congel has had discussions with former Buffalo Sabres owner B. Thomas Golisano about buying the Bills and then building a multi-use domed stadium and mixed-use complex of hotels, offices and other developments on the former Seneca Mall site. Supporters of the plan say it would be an economic catalyst that would appeal to the NFL, but critics note that the Southtowns location is a bit out of the way.
5. Niagara Falls: Manhattan developer Howard Milstein has raised the possibility of the Bills’ new stadium being located on the vast tract of land he owns there, and Buffalo developer Howard A. Zemsky – a confidant of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo – said a Falls location would help appeal to the growing Southern Ontario market. But others, including Buffalo developer Carl P. Paladino, said the Grand Island bridges could pose an access problem.
6. Orchard Park: The much-renovated Ralph Wilson Stadium could get retrofitted yet again, and that’s a cost-effective alternative that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz have mentioned. But a new Ralph would suffer from the same big problem as the old Ralph: a Southtowns location that adds about 30 minutes – and sometimes more – to the trip for Bills fans from Buffalo, the Northtowns, Rochester and Toronto.