Remember the disgust and frustration the words “domed stadium” once conjured up?
The long-ago plan to build a home for the Buffalo Bills in Lancaster collapsed like the Metrodome in a snowstorm, setting off a 20-year legal battle that hung over Erie County for years and became just one more symbol of the way things went wrong.
It was the House that Erie County Never Built. A botched deal that failed to bring the riches of development promised. A legal migraine that cost the county $10 million.
Or, perhaps, one of the best things that happened to football in Buffalo.
Just look around the National Football League, where domed stadiums have not held up to time.
The Kingdome was the first to go when it was demolished in 2000, 24 years after it opened in Seattle. But others have followed into obsolescence.
Take, for example, the Pontiac Silverdome, which opened outside Detroit two years after Ralph Wilson Stadium. Its roof, deflated, is in shreds. Or the Indianapolis RCA Dome, built in 1984. It was imploded in 2008. Or the Houston Astrodome, the first of its kind when it opened in 1965 and the model for the dome that was planned for Lancaster. It’s empty and in limbo.
Domed stadiums had economic problems as football changed, said Deputy County Executive Richard Tobe, who played a key role in negotiating the lease at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
“You couldn’t adapt them to put in more boxes and club seats, which became sort of a new phenomenon in football about 15 or 20 years ago,” Tobe said. “They were built too tightly, too vertically.”
Of those NFL domes that have hung on for at least 20 years, only the Superdome in New Orleans has a future, and that has been with hundreds of millions in renovations and a civic commitment to revitalizing a structure that came to symbolize the horror of Hurricane Katrina.
The Minnesota Vikings will play their last game in the Metrodome this season before its planned demolition next year. And the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, just 21 years old, is slated to become a parking lot in 2017, when the Falcons hope to build a $1.2 billion retractable roof stadium, like Toronto’s Rogers Centre, where the Bills played a “home” game Sunday.
Had Erie County built that dome in Lancaster for $72 million, it likely it would have gone the way of the others – too outdated to work in the NFL and not worth the cost of the renovations.
Could Western New York have afforded – or tolerated – the type of hefty price tag that would have come with replacing an outdated domed stadium? It’s tough to imagine. Without that expensive upgrade, it’s reasonable to believe the Bills would have already packed up and left.
Construction will begin next year on the latest Ralph Wilson Stadium renovations, which at $130 million are far less than most NFL stadium construction projects these days. It will be among the oldest stadiums when, at 50 years old, its current lease expires in 2023.
“The stadium itself, in part because of the way it was constructed and in part because of the way it was maintained, was physically sound,” Tobe said. “But it was also very adaptable.”
That $20 million stadium the county opened in Orchard Park in 1973 turned out to be one for the ages.