Even as $130 million in renovations continue this summer at Ralph Wilson Stadium, just about everyone studying the future of the Buffalo Bills acknowledges that come some September Sunday about a decade from now, the team will kick off another season in a new home.
And that sets in motion an entirely new sport known as the location guessing game.
Will the Bills end up returning to their traditional home in Orchard Park? Or maybe some new site in the City of Buffalo?
Or will a dark horse candidate like Niagara Falls suddenly emerge? Or even Batavia?
Make no mistake, the process is already underway. Site selection experts over the past few days have scouted land around the Central Terminal, downtown sites and the outer harbor. New talk centers on the Riverbend industrial complex, while some continue to concentrate on Niagara Falls.
Top officials like County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, meanwhile, are insisting that the current stadium, or at least its county-owned footprint, figures prominently in the discussions.
But as the National Football League, the team and government officials all wrangle with stadium questions fraught with economic and emotional pitfalls, influential people are offering strong hints about the future.
“We all want to focus and get that stadium built,” NFL Commissioner Roger E. Goodell famously declared earlier this month. “We need to find the right long-term solution that is good for the community and can help the Bills continue to be successful in Western New York. I’m confident we’ll get there.”
All of this assumes the team remains in Western New York. And it further assumes that taxpayers buy into paying for a potential $1 billion facility. Still, planners are homing in on as many as 15 sites for initial vetting.
“We want to start broadly and narrow down,” said a source with knowledge of the situation who spoke to The Buffalo News on condition of anonymity.
Indeed, a Los Angeles-based consulting firm called AECOM hired by the state to assist in the site search – featuring experts in urban planning and architecture – began visiting possible stadium locations earlier this month. On their first trip, the half-dozen members of the team focused initial energies on “anywhere where there’s a tract of land that’s open or something that can be removed,” according to a source involved in the stadium planning.
Before the process is completed by mid-July, the source said, three to five sites in and around downtown Buffalo will be vetted. And it is expected that at least one – and possibly two – Buffalo locations will qualify for the final round of stadium locations the firm will recommend to the state and future owners. The source cautioned that the work will also include a plan to either renovate Ralph Wilson Stadium or build a new facility in Orchard Park.
The group has yet to explore three to four sites outside of Buffalo and is fielding suggestions from politicians, developers and even fans.
The possibilities are many, such as a retractable stadium tied to a convention center.
“No one has floated it to us. We’ve talked about it internally,” the source said of that possibility. “We need economic development, and there may be a need for a new convention center in Buffalo, but it’s a little tricky.”
Proximity to mass transit also enters the discussions. C. Douglas Hartmayer, spokesman for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, said the agency cannot just be included in new facility planning as an “afterthought.”
“No one has specifically asked us,” he said. “But we would certainly want to be part of any conversation at the very beginning with regard to tying public transit into any location being considered. That’s paramount.”
Other questions also arise. How much would it cost to build new roads? Is the land for a new stadium owned by one or a few individuals or companies? Do additional parcels need to be purchased, complicating any deal?
Already, specific sites are entering the discussions, including:
• Riverbend Industrial Park: A new idea floated by Rep. Brian Higgins, who has emerged over the years as a major voice in Buffalo planning, suggests the former Republic Steel site along the Buffalo River, pegged for a high-tech industrial park, might also house a stadium.
The Buffalo Democrat said government and the team face a unique opportunity that will probably take 10 years to accomplish, so time is on the community’s side to “remake our urban landscape to be more reflective of the emerging economy.”
The concept could present opportunities to remove the Skyway, reconfigure the Niagara Thruway and make other major moves.
“To deal with those issues independently is challenging,” the congressman said, “but it might be feasible in the larger concept of a stadium.”
Higgins acknowledged money will prove a problem, but he said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s plan for a high-tech industrial park at Riverbend can only mean that the area will emerge as a new focal point for the city.
“Riverbend is a couple of hundred acres, and I don’t know if this could coexist with what the governor has proposed,” he said. “But the committee will look at it.”
• The outer harbor: Higgins has emerged as a major critic of a detailed plan to locate a new stadium on the outer harbor, labeling the idea “not appropriate” for waterfront lands. But with new focus on the future of the Bills in Western New York, outer harbor proponents like businessman George F. Hasiotis and WUFO sports talk host Pat Freeman are doubling down on promoting their proposal.
“We’re on the short list for a site because we’re the only suitable site based on NFL standards,” Hasiotis said, pointing to what he calls “Super Bowl site standards.”
Hasiotis’ Greater Buffalo Sports and Entertainment Complex is proposing a $1.5 billion waterfront development, which would include a 72,000-seat football stadium with a retractable roof suitable for other kinds of sporting events, retail space, a convention center and sports museum. The project was designed by HKS, which has experience developing NFL stadiums in Dallas, Indianapolis and Minneapolis.
The Hasiotis group has received encouragement from the Common Council, but Higgins and other influential figures have shown no interest.
“Unfortunately, business people and local officials don’t understand that if you want to dance with the NFL, you have to build a Super Bowl facility,” Hasiotis said.
• Ralph Wilson Stadium: Poloncarz insists that the team’s current footprint in Orchard Park offers huge cost advantages – even if for only eight to 10 games per year, as opposed to a new facility elsewhere that might get more year-round use.
The county executive said fans entering Ralph Wilson Stadium this September will encounter a very different and improved facility, which he said should encourage a return to the team’s home of 41 years. The stadium’s “good bones” make it eligible for another major retrofit, he said, while the county owns more than enough acreage in the immediate area to construct a new facility if necessary.
He questions whether a new stadium would generate sufficient revenue for the Bills and the NFL, and asks if Western New York fans would pay thousands of dollars for the “personal seat licenses” that accompany new stadiums – just for the right to shell out thousands more for tickets.
“When it comes to long-term viability, I certainly believe we can keep the team here for many years at the current Ralph Wilson facility,” Poloncarz said. “It makes sense in dollars and cents.
“And when people walk in there in late August, they’re going to go: ‘Wow, this is not the same old stadium,’ ” he said. “The question is: Will others believe and will the NFL get behind it? I think opinions will change about Ralph Wilson Stadium.”
• An Orchard Park alternative: Poloncarz realizes that his preference for the current facility may be overshadowed by the clamor for a new stadium. He said the county owns plenty of acceptable land nearby – allowing the Bills to maintain their current offices and practice facility on site and offer lots of parking as well.
“There’s a lot of land there, whether it’s right next door or across the street,” he said. “The county owns it, so there would be no acquisition costs, and that’s certainly an advantage.”
The source involved in the siting process noted that the existing Ralph Wilson Stadium site is approximately 200 acres or more.
“Not a lot of NFL teams have that,” the source said.
Poloncarz said the county acreage can best accommodate the tailgating culture that has developed at Orchard Park over the last 40 years.
• Batavia: A Rochester-Buffalo midway point has entered many discussions, especially as a good location for Rochester fans. But distance from another major fan base in Ontario looms as a major concern.
“I don’t see it as a viable option. Nobody in the New Stadium Working Group is talking Batavia,” Poloncarz said, referring to a 21-member panel that is studying location options.
• Niagara Falls: More serious discussion centers around one of the world’s major tourist attractions and other Niagara County locations. Speculation began when Manhattan developer Howard Milstein’s name entered the ownership sweepstakes. While he has said he will not buy the team, he left open the possibility that his vast tract in downtown Niagara Falls might house a new stadium.
• Ontario: Speculation continues to surround a possible Bills move to Toronto, where published reports have centered on locations near Downsview Park and Woodbine Race Track. But some say the Bills could attract Canadian companies to luxury suites in a new stadium closer to Buffalo in, say, Hamilton or St. Catharines.
Though no specific proposals have surfaced, and a move out of New York would naturally preclude any state participation, some with knowledge of NFL economics say questions about the Bills’ viability would be solved in a “combination” Buffalo/Toronto market.
Meanwhile, as the consulting firm’s work continues in offices scattered around the country, site visits will prove key to helping the group understand – and see firsthand – potential attributes and problems.
“We’re still early in the process, so we’ll grab as many ideas as we can,” the source said of suggestions for sites.
How much is needed for a new stadium depends on whether a suburban or urban site is considered. The actual stadium needs about 15 acres of land for a typical NFL facility.
“From there, you have a history of tailgating (at Bills’ games). We’ll honor that tradition. So there’s land for that,” the source said.
The firm will also consider how to spawn additional development around the new stadium – more difficult for NFL stadiums than baseball parks, for instance, because there are far fewer games.
“Nothing will be perfect. You’re looking at the best of various scenarios,” the source said. “Every site will have a wart.”
For instance, the source said that wind and other weather issues might complicate a waterfront location.
“It might be gorgeous on paper but challenging in the end,” the source said of some plans being floated. “Anything can be beautiful, but we have to be realistic (about) what can be sold to the NFL, and we don’t even know who the new owners are going to be.”