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When plans were unveiled three decades ago to build a new stadium in the heart of downtown that looked like an old-fashioned ballpark with modern amenities, even some of the project’s most fervent supporters branded it a “wild concept.”

But it did get built, and when it debuted in 1988, Pilot Field was the newest stadium in Triple-A baseball, the first in decades to be built in the urban core. Other cities soon followed and also constructed downtown ballparks.

Now, more than a quarter-century later, the Buffalo Bisons this week opened their new season, this year affiliated again with the Toronto Blue Jays. While the team still attracts respectable crowds, it sells out less frequently, and team officials say it’s time to make major stadium upgrades to create a “next-generation ballpark.”

“A ballpark needs to change,” architect Joseph E. Spear told The Buffalo News during a recent tour of the park, now called Coca-Cola Field. “It needs to be a living thing. It can’t be frozen in time that never changes.”

Spear was one of the architects who helped design the city-owned stadium, and he returned to Buffalo last month to tour the facility. Eventually, he and others will produce a list of proposed improvements likely to cost millions of dollars. The checklist is expected to range from costly infrastructure upgrades such as new boilers, to amenities that fans have come to expect, said Spear, now senior principal at Populous, a Kansas City-based architectural firm. One such example might be a Wi-Fi system.

“It needs to adjust to the marketplace,” Spear said. “And I think that’s part of what we’re talking about on this trip.”

It could take about six months before the Bisons submit a formal plan for stadium improvements to city officials, said Jonathan A. Dandes, president of Rich Baseball operations.

“I would argue that in many degrees it’s antiquated now,” Dandes said. “We like to think we do a good job in maintaining it and keeping up to 2014 standards. But our systems are antiquated.”

For example, the boiler system that provides hot water and air-conditioning to the facility is the original system installed in 1988. The boilers are about seven years beyond their normal lifespan, Dandes said.

Then there are fan amenities.

“The assumptions we made back in 1986 and ’87 are not necessarily the assumptions we make now in terms of fan amenities,” Dandes said. “There are a whole number of other things relative to food and beverage, and fan comfort and accessibility, and party areas that we’re looking at right now to see what this next generation of ballpark looks like.”

While Dandes stressed that it’s too soon to place even a tentative price tag on improvements that might be considered, it’s already clear that the sum will be substantial.

“I would think that it would run into the millions,” Spears said.

Given the fact that the city owns the facility, many assume that even if the Bisons agree to share some capital costs, the public contribution would be significant.

And what do city officials think?

North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr., chairman of the Community Development Committee, said he believes there is taxpayer value in maintaining a “world-class” Triple-A baseball stadium downtown. But a key factor is “how many millions” would be needed, he added. The city has nearly $1.6 million in capital funds that could be made available for long-term upgrades at the stadium. If the ballpark’s needs are significantly greater, he said, careful study would have to be given to such an expenditure.

Fillmore Council Member David A. Franczyk, the only current Council member who was in office when construction began on the stadium, said the city has a vested interest in upgrading it. “You don’t want the place to fall apart,” he said. “But sometimes, these type of projects need to be done over a long period of time.”

Who should pay?

One person who thinks the Bisons should pay for all future capital improvements is Alfred T. Coppola. He is the former Common Council member who waged an ill-fated crusade in the mid-1980s to place the stadium project before voters in a referendum.

“Let them be responsible for everything,” said Coppola, adding that the Bisons should become the owner. “It’s going to need a lot more upgrading, so why can’t the Bisons take it over and put some of it back on the tax rolls? It would help the city immensely. But they don’t want to hear that.”

Dandes said Coppola’s remarks ignore the fact that the Rich family, which owns the Bisons, has invested nearly $23 million in the downtown ballpark over the decades.

“The infrastructure items – things like electrical and plumbing and air-conditioning and roofs and those type of structural issues – are still ultimately the responsibility of the city, as we think they should be,” Dandes said.

He added that the Bisons organization from the beginning viewed the stadium as a “partnership” with the city. “We also accept our responsibility to provide funding where it makes sense,” he said. “At no point did we ever, nor will we, say this is something that we’re going to turn over to the public sector and say ‘you pay for it.’ There is a position for us to participate.”

The Bisons should foot the tab for major improvements, Coppola reiterated. In addition, he said, it makes sense to negotiate a sale of the stadium to the team, because nearly all major events there involve baseball. Even if the city sold the ballpark to the Bisons for a token sum, he said, it would relieve taxpayers of future repair costs and generate tax revenue.

Follow Pegula’s lead

Coppola urged the Rich Family to take a cue from Terry Pegula, who is fronting the vast majority of costs associated with HarborCenter, an entertainment facility that is currently under construction.

“There’s an example. (Pegula) has just as much money as the Rich family, and he’s pumping a lot of his own money into downtown. It’s right there. The dollars are coming from the Pegula family. Why can’t the Rich family – the Bisons – pump some more money into the stadium downtown?” Coppola said.

That’s something Golombek said might be “worthy of discussion.”

“But I like having a stadium in downtown Buffalo,” he said. “It’s still an important attraction.”

More than a decade ago, the Bisons agreed to assume responsibility for most operational costs at the ballpark.

The deal was hatched after a growing number of city officials complained that the stadium had been a drain on the city’s budget. For example, in late 2000, then-City Comptroller Anthony R. Nanula stated that the stadium “continues to bleed red ink.”

The present city comptroller, Mark J.F. Schroeder, said there were some years when the stadium cost city taxpayers about $1 million. That has changed.

Under the agreement, which has been continued in a series of year-to-year extensions, the city covers insurance, refuse collection, utilities and water. “So that adds up to $138,000 – a far cry from a million,” he said.

City has money set aside

Is the city in the financial position to foot millions of dollars in improvements, repairs and upgrades at Coca-Cola Field?

Schroeder said more than $848,000 already is set aside in the city’s capital budget for ballpark improvements. It has been set aside over a number of years, but not spent.

In addition, if planners can demonstrate that stadium work would move at an expeditious pace, Schroeder said, another $750,000 could be provided in an upcoming bond sale. The two sums would provide nearly $1.6 million for stadium-related projects.

Beyond that sum, Schroeder said, city leaders and Bisons officials would have to come up with a mutually acceptable funding strategy.

Without discussing any specifics as it relates to funding a yet-to-be-determined laundry list of stadium improvements, Dandes alluded to the fact the Bisons plan to reach out to other levels of government.

“It will probably be six months before we figure it all out,” Dandes told The News. “Then we’ll talk to the mayor, who has been outstanding, and our state delegation and the county executive. We’ll talk further about how we proceed.”

Schroeder underscored the importance of conducting a review process, with all affected parties working together in a transparent way to devise a plan. “The people of Buffalo usually embrace this (type of project), but you’ve got to do it in the light. You don’t do it in darkness,” Schroeder said.

The comptroller suggested the city borrow some of the tactics that Erie County has used to study various upgrades at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park. If Coca-Cola Field will require millions of dollars in public funds, the review mission must be thorough and open, Schroeder said.

Dandes is cautiously optimistic that the Bisons will be in the position to propose a comprehensive set of stadium enhancements late this summer or in early fall. And the team officials are aware of fiscal restraints at all levels of government.

“There’s no question that everyone in the private sector and public sector is straining. Everyone’s got a budget issue,” Dandes said. “But we like to think that what we provide for six or seven months during the summer is something that people value.”

email: bmeyer@buffnews,com