ALBANY – The Cuomo administration is keeping its suite at Ralph Wilson Stadium, but it has turned over the suite’s management and tickets to a local business group.
Months after coming under criticism for including the suite as part of the $130 million lease agreement Gov. Andrew Cuomo struck to keep the team in Buffalo, the administration has tapped Buffalo Niagara Enterprise to run the suite and vet who gets to use the 16 free seats. The governor’s economic development agency, though, will have final say for the ticket giveaways to ensure compliance with guidelines for the I Love New York Hospitality Suite.
Administration officials say it makes sense for the Buffalo business group to manage use of the suite because it is intended as an economic development tool to show off the region to visiting business executives.
“Our goal is to build the Buffalo economy, and BNE is the right group to market this great asset,” said Matthew Wing, a Cuomo spokesman.
A two-page set of guidelines for the suite, obtained by The Buffalo News, states that the suite is to be used “for the purposes of encouraging and fostering economic development, tourism and public awareness for the state and Western New York, and for other charitable or public events during events that are scheduled at the stadium.”
Officials at the Buffalo business group said they intend to market the suite mainly to out-of-town corporate executives, real estate relocation firms, site selectors and others who would take in a Bills game as part of an overall attempt to bolster interest in companies moving to Western New York.
“We’re not making these tickets available necessarily to die-hard Bills fans who live in Western New York,” BNE spokesman Paul Pfeiffer said. “We’re trying to use this as an opportunity to bring people here from outside the community.”
The suite is located at Section 140A in the corner of the lower bowl on the Bills’ side of the stadium.
People interested in getting access to the suite must show how the ticket will have some economic development-related or charitable purpose. Suite users will have to buy their own food and drinks.
Public officials, including Cuomo as well as members of the Legislature, will be charged if they use the suite and will pay “at the rate charged to the general public for attending such an event.”
The Cuomo administration’s Empire State Development Corp., the state’s main economic development agency, without fanfare in early July cut a deal with the Buffalo business group to manage the suite. Pfeiffer said the state approached the business group.
The stadium lease contract signed by the team, state and Erie County calls for the team to provide “exclusive" and “unfettered access” to the suite during home games and other times. The deal calls for the team to provide 16 tickets per game to the state, as well as one parking pass for every four of those tickets.
There are still plenty of empty seats in the suite for the upcoming season, including the Bills’ Sept. 8 sold-out home opener against the New England Patriots.
“We’re just really getting this thing up and going,” Pfeiffer said of the group’s new role in managing the suite.
The business group is also working with other organizations, including tourism promotion groups, to get the suite’s tickets distributed.
Assemblywoman Jane Corwin, a Clarence Republican who has been critical of the state getting a suite at the stadium, said she appreciates the guidelines for using the suite.
“They’re obviously trying to prevent abuse,” she said.
But Corwin said the state is still creating possible problems. What, for instance, happens if Sam Hoyt, the governor’s regional economic development chief, sits in the suite to help lure businesses?
“If he is expected to attend and pay out of his pocket, is he going to get reimbursed on his expense report? This is the inherent problem with these types of situations,” she said.
But administration officials dismissed the worry as unfounded, saying such tickets would be considered a gift banned under the public officers law. As a result, Hoyt, or any official using the suite, would have to pay out of his own pocket if he gets a ticket. The price would be one-sixteenth the value of the box. The precise value of the box was not available from the state.
“By the very agreement, if an elected official is in the box, they must pay full value,” said Wing, the Cuomo spokesman.
Assemblyman James Brennan, the chief Albany critic of the state’s having a suite at the stadium, declined to comment Wednesday on the arrangement.
The state’s demand for a suite in stadium lease talks drew criticism earlier this year from state legislators and newspaper editorials.
“So taxpayers help fund upgrades for a stadium for a wealthy NFL owner – and they underwrite the governor’s men schmoozing with the high and mighty,” the New York Post wrote last spring.
The Cuomo administration has defended the suite, saying it is located in a government-owned facility – in this case, Erie County – and that it is part of the governor’s overall effort to jump-start the region’s economy by attracting out-of-area firms to the Buffalo area.
The guidelines signed by the state and the Buffalo business group stipulate that the suite cannot be used for political fundraisers. A Buffalo Bills spokesman said the price of a luxury box with 16 seats for home games this year totals $54,648. Per game, that works out to $6,072 for the box, or $379.50 per seat in the suite.
The actual ticket process is handled by the BNE, and users of the suite must submit a range of information about themselves, including name of their employer, any dealings they or their company might have with the state, including if they are part of litigation involving the state, and whether the guest or guest’s employer is a registered lobbying entity.
Those using the suite also must attest that they will follow the suite’s “code of conduct,” such as no obscene gestures or public drunkenness. That is the same code that all NFL teams ask of fans, officials said.
“Given the professional nature of the people we intend to invite, I don’t think we’ll have any problems there,” Pfeiffer said.