When the Buffalo Bills signed a new 10-year lease in December 2012 to stay in Orchard Park in exchange for $130 million in stadium renovations, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo promised to consider the idea of building a new stadium.
Monday, the governor made good on the first step in that promise.
In a letter to Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and Bills President and CEO Russ Brandon, the Cuomo administration announced it had appointed its first five members of the New Stadium Working Group “as part of the state’s unwavering commitment to keep the Buffalo Bills a thriving part of the Buffalo community.”
All three parties – New York State, Erie County and the Bills – can each appoint seven members to the board, which thus could have up to 21 members.
The governor appointed Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy, Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster, Buffalo Niagara Partnership CEO Dottie Gallagher-Cohen and Empire State Development President Kenneth Adams.
“The purpose of the group is to explore options for development and construction of a new stadium in Western New York to serve as a home for the Bills, a catalyst for economic growth and a premier sports and entertainment venue for the region,” stated the letter from Howard B. Glaser, director of state operations and senior policy adviser to the governor.
In the letter, dated Monday, Glaser also asked for a meeting “within the next two weeks” with the county’s and Bills’ representatives, to get the process started.
The news comes a little over a year after state, county and team negotiators struck a deal for a 10-year lease with a $400 million relocation penalty to keep the Bills in the area. The unusual agreement allowed for a one-time exception, after the seventh year, when the penalty would be lowered to $28.4 million, to give the team a single escape clause; team officials, though, stressed that they had no intention of leaving.
As part of the agreement, the state and county agreed to spend $54 million and $41 million, respectively, on renovations to the aging Ralph Wilson Stadium, along with $35 million from the team. Those renovations included new video display boards, a new west end plaza, a new team store, improved gate entrance and concession areas and other technological enhancements.
At the time, Cuomo said the three parties would explore the possibility of building a new stadium in the next 10 years, “if that is financially feasible and intelligent from a development point of view.”
A senior official with the Cuomo administration, who insisted on anonymity, explained the rationale for exploring a new stadium.
“We’re very pleased with the progress on the renovations at the stadium. It’ll be a better fan experience,” the official said. “But we need to ensure the Bills will be in Western New York for the long term, and it’s hard to see how that can happen without having a world-class facility for the Bills as well as other entertainment ideas.”
State officials want to “get going right away” with the first meeting and discussions.
“The administration official said that “all options are on the table,” noting the appointment of Brown and Dyster to the panel. He confirmed that those options include considering downtown Buffalo and the outer harbor, as well as suburban Erie County or Niagara Falls, for possible stadium locations.
The state has “no preset ideas,” he added, but it has to be a coordinated effort that spurs additional development, rather than just a stadium used a few times a year.
“The general experience is that a stadium just plopped down somewhere without sustainable development around it isn’t the best development,” he said.
Based on other new National Football League stadiums, the price tag could reach $800 million to $1 billion.
By the time the lease expires in 2023, Ralph Wilson Stadium would be 50 years old. That’s ancient in NFL circles.
In 2011, team owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. admitted that the stadium needed a lot of work, as he lobbied for extensive renovations.
“We want the state and the county to put some substantial money into fixing this stadium up,” he said at the time. “It’s crumbling right now. But we don’t want a Taj Mahal. We just want a nice, clean place to watch a football game.”
In the most recent lease negotiations, the Bills asked for stadium renovations costing between $200 million and $220 million. That figure later was reduced to $130 million.
Some observers have claimed that up to $500 million in renovations might be needed to ensure the stadium’s long-term viability in the NFL. The Bills couldn’t be reached to comment.