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Any stadium talk surrounding the Buffalo Bills recently has focused on where a new one may end up in the long term.
In the short term, though, the team is right in the middle of a $130 million face-lift of its current home in Orchard Park.
The improvements at Ralph Wilson Stadium were on display for the Western New York media during a guided tour Thursday.
"A lot of this renovation was designed by the fans. We do an exhaustive amount of research and surveys, and the thing that kept coming up was, people weren't excited about the concession offerings, they found the concourses difficult to navigate, and they found the gates really congested," said Marc Honan, the Bills' chief marketing officer and Thursday's tour guide. "They loved watching a football game in Ralph Wilson Stadium. They loved the sight lines whether they sat in the last row of the 300 level or they sat in the fourth row of the lower deck. So we focused, really, on the areas they found needed the most work."
That's being funded by more than $90 million in taxpayer money from Erie County and the state; a hefty price tag considering the very real possibility a new stadium will be needed at the conclusion of the team's lease in 2022. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said earlier this month that a new stadium would indeed be a requirement for the team's long-term future in Western New York, an issue that will have to be sorted out upon conclusion of the team's forthcoming sale.
In the meantime, however, the improvements being made at The Ralph are well underway.
"It's an old baseball adage, but you can't take your eye off the ball. For us, it's about making Ralph Wilson Stadium the best possible experience it can be," Honan said. "I really think when fans walk into this stadium, they're going to be blown away."
A crew of about 750 men and women is on site, working in two shifts five days a week. On Saturdays, a crew of about 200 puts in a single shift.
"If you expand 'local' to Rochester, our region, they're all local," Joe Frandina, the Bills' director of construction management, said of the workers. "These men and ladies, they're tough as nails. When we talked about the winter- time, these people didn't stop because the wind chill was minus 20 degrees. They kept on going. We're proud of these guys."
Despite the wicked cold, Honan said only a couple of days were lost because of heavy snowfall, and with construction season having arrived, visible changes are beginning to take place.
New, black paint is being applied to the exterior of the building, providing a visual aesthetic that will be dramatically different when it's complete.
"We wanted a color that was really unifying to all the architecture, and really the blues and the reds didn't do that," Honan said. "This color does that. ... We wanted it to be dynamic."
On two of the towers facing out, charging buffalos will be backlit, which Honan said will "pop" off the new color.
"It's a big departure from where we were," he said. "That black and white will be the unifying colors of the entire outside of the stadium."
Along Abbott Road, the bones of what will become an 8,000-square-foot team store are in place, a structure Honan said will serve as the "new front door" of The Ralph and replace the current 2,000-square-foot team store that is adjacent to the field house.
"In the past, there really wasn't anything significant that drew fans into the stadium - outside the stadium itself," he said. "We're really proud of the architecture and we think fans are going to be really impressed with all the unique offerings that will be inside."
The new store will have room for exhibits for Bills in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and on the team's Wall of Fame, and will also feature extended hours.
As fans make their way in, they'll find a reduced number of gates - down from nine to six - but should have a more efficient time. That's because the six new "super" gates have been pushed back, creating more space to allow for more lanes of traffic coming in.
Once inside, the team will have two sets of "monumental stairs" to reach the 100 level, so named for their size and the amount of work that's gone into constructing them.
The stairs, which are 24 feet wide, necessitated the stadium wall being knocked out to install.
They will replace four sets of "switchback" stairs that had previously served as the way to the lower bowl.
"They certainly were not easy to navigate for fans," Honan said. "These will allow fans to come straight down from the gates into the concourse. It's a much easier way to get into the concourse area. What's even better is that we were really without natural light in the concourse, and these ... are going to allow some to come in."
The new staircases are designed to alleviate some of the traffic in the concourse, another major goal of the construction. To that end, the concession areas have been gutted and expanded. A total of 43 such stands - up from 38 - will have more service points, including those for beer only, and all will accept credit cards.
There will also no longer be portable concession stands, which created logjams in the concourse when lines went in both directions.
"We'll only have lines from the concession stands out, which will give fans an easy traffic pattern," Honan said.
New at the concessions will be offerings from Duff's, La Nova and Tim Hortons.
"We talked about bringing local fare into the stadium," Honan said. "Can you believe that a couple years ago you couldn't come to Ralph Wilson Stadium and get a chicken wing?"
Other improvements to expect:
· An increase in the number of restrooms, from 48 to 64, nearly all of which will be renovated.
· A new 33-foot-by-163-foot scoreboard, as well as two new 33-foot-by-60-foot scoreboards on the opposite end, atop the M&T Bank and Time Warner Cable clubs. One scoreboard will primarily show out-of-town scores, the NFL's Red Zone channel, and fantasy football stats, Honan said, in response to fans' requests.
· The Coors Light Sports Bar in the east end zone, which will feature roll-up garage doors and radiant heat above, along with concession, restrooms and a full bar. Across the concourse will be a walk-in team store that will also help to alleviate traffic and allow for fans to pick up merchandise before purchasing it.
· New lighting throughout the stadium.
"The amount of concession points, the concourse space, the lighting, moving the gates out ... everything's geared toward every fan that comes to Ralph Wilson Stadium," Honan said. "We want fans to want to be here and want to come back every week and I think these renovations are a big step toward doing that."
Frandina estimated that 65 percent of the construction is complete, and the target date for the job to be finished is Aug. 1, just about three weeks before the Bills' preseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Aug. 23.