ALBANY – Consultants have narrowed the list of recommended sites for a new Buffalo Bills stadium to four best sites, and it appears all the finalists are within Erie County.
The consultants’ report for the Cuomo administration is still being finalized, and it also will lay out the possibility for renovation of Ralph Wilson Stadium along the lines of the re-construction at Lambeau Field in Green Bay and Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, according to a source with direct knowledge of the report.
The price tag for further renovation of the current stadium, depending on the level of gutting and reconstruction of the bowls, was not revealed Tuesday, though it would total several hundred million dollars.
The report’s recommendations obviously would be non-binding on the next team owner, but are meant to serve as a road map for the team and NFL as they consider various stadium possibilities. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, in a recent phone call to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, again pressed the desire of NFL owners that a new stadium be built for the Bills after a new owner takes over.
The consultants’ study, which examined 13 potential sites from Batavia to Niagara Falls to the City of Buffalo and the suburbs, was due to be released in mid-July. It could be further delayed until after the trust of the late Ralph Wilson picks a new owner of the team. Sources said there is sensitivity that the state does not want to be seen as interfering or affecting the sale process.
“We are paying really close attention to the sales process, and we do not want the study to throw off anything in that process. It seems like it’s coming to an end, and we’re being conscientious of that,” the source said.
The Cuomo administration declined to comment.
The source, who spoke Tuesday to The Buffalo News on condition of anonymity, declined to identify the locations of the four sites – or what could end up in the final report as just three. But consultants are considering stadium sites that could accommodate a 65,000-seat facility with or without a roof depending on whether the next team owner wants a year-round facility.
Not making the list of finalists are Niagara Falls and Buffalo’s outer harbor. The consultants determined they are good sites, especially Niagara Falls, but currently there are too many transportation hurdles.
At least one site near downtown Buffalo will be on the final list, sources have said for months, and consultants are still eyeing a potential site in West Seneca being pushed by a developer.
The study was ordered earlier this year by Cuomo, whose economic development agency entered into a contract with Foley & Lardner, a Manhattan law firm that represented the state in the 2012 and 2013 talks with the Bills over a lease extension and stadium renovations. The law firm then contracted with AECOM, a California-based company that has worked on numerous professional, college and Olympic stadium projects, including Lambeau Field and stadiums home to the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Diamondbacks.
The consultants have spent the past several months visiting all 13 potential stadium locations and met with developers and other Western New York officials and private sector executives about everything from zoning and mass transit issues to environmental reviews and development considerations.
The report being finalized is intended for two audiences: government officials, both state and county, who are likely to be asked to provide some financial package for a new stadium, and the team’s new owner.
State officials have suggested the team and NFL will drive the final decision on where a new stadium will be built, if that is the course taken.
The consultants’ study would offer the next owner valuable insights to the benefits and obstacles for locating a stadium in certain places in Western New York.
The final report will identify all the sites the consultants looked at, with reasons why most were excluded. Access to existing or expanded mass transit opportunities, zoning issues, potential for ancillary development, such as retail or entertainment space and parking were among the considerations in evaluating new stadium sites.
The report will offer a “basic” stadium plan of 65,000 seats, expandable to 70,000. Ralph Wilson Stadium’s capacity is just over 73,000.
The report will say that a new open-air stadium would require about 1.8 million square feet of space, while a facility with a roof for multi-purpose use, such as a convention center, will require 2 million square feet. The source with direct knowledge of the report said construction cost estimates are still being vetted. Just the stadium, without any parking or other features, will need 20-plus acres of land.
The source said the outer harbor would need four or more new bridges to make the site work for a new stadium, while Niagara Falls, which the source described as a “phenomenal" potential site, also would need too much bridge and road work.
“In Erie County is most likely the best place to do it. Beyond Erie, the options don’t appear to make sense as of right now,” the source said of the recommendations for a new stadium.
The consultants’ contract with the state also requires them to look at options for keeping the team at the current facility.
Of several sites near downtown Buffalo that were examined, at least one will make the study’s final list.
The study, by design, has ignored some considerations or locations. For instance, it looks at the infrastructure needs for a new stadium built in Buffalo, such as adjustments to roads or extension of the transit line, but will not discuss “what politically needs to be done for a particular site,” the source said.
The study also did not consider any potential sites in Ontario, a no-brainer for a New York State-funded project in a year when Cuomo is up for re-election.
The state faces a potentially tricky situation. The state and Erie County, in the 2013 lease extension deal, committed $95 million for existing stadium improvements. That’s on top of the millions already spent by the state under a deal cut in 1998 by Gov. George E. Pataki, whose lease extension agreement back then also included a $3 million annual state payment for the team’s operating budget.
Cuomo raised caution flags about spending more state money on a new stadium after the recent flow of public funds into the current stadium, but he has not ruled out that the state could find itself opening up its wallet again to keep the team in the Buffalo area.