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The Buffalo Bills on Thursday announced their selections for a high-level panel exploring options for a new football stadium in Western New York, kicking off the process that looks to cement the team's future in the area just days after the death of longtime owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr.
Dubbed the "New Stadium Working Group," the panel also includes the surprise appointment of one of Washington's top political figures, Sen. Charles E. Schumer. His presence in the group is now viewed as key, given his influence in the Senate and his long-standing efforts to keep the Bills in Buffalo. That includes a close relationship with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, a Western New York native.
The group appears to be wasting no time in getting started, with Cuomo administration officials indicating a Tuesday meeting is slated for a yet-to-be-determined location in the Buffalo area.
The Bills also named six other high-powered figures to the effort, including Bills President and CEO Russell H. Brandon; Louis P. Ciminelli, chairman of LPCiminelli Inc.; Christopher H. Koch, CEO of New Era Cap Co.; Jordan Levy, managing partner of SoftBank Capital; Jeffrey
C. Littman, chief financial officer of the Bills; and Mary Owen, executive vice president of strategic planning for the Bills.
Other members already have been named to what could be a 21-member panel by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz.
Schumer said Thursday he feels obligated to make sure the Bills don't leave with their next owner.
"There's no better way to honor Ralph Wilson's legacy than by keeping the Bills in Buffalo," he told The Buffalo News. "I spoke to him at length about his passion to keep the team here."
The senator added that the Bills' leaving is "not even an alternative I want to face.
"The challenge is that Buffalo is a small-market team, and there are larger markets that are available," he said. "But on the other hand, the revenue-sharing provisions that the NFL has put together - which I lobbied on the Bills' behalf for - makes the differential less."
"But the spirit and the ability to expand the markets so that people from farther around, from Rochester and into Canada, can come to Buffalo and watch the Bills is very helpful," he said.
Schumer underscored the importance of an NFL team to Western New York's economy and identity.
"It's not just the jobs and the people who come and the weekends in hotels," he said. "It's something intangible. It's one of the things that Western New York identifies with, like cold winters and hard work. It's part of our souls, and we can't have it go away."
Erland "Erkie" Kailbourne, the former bank executive who once headed the Business Backs the Bills effort to market the team, said Schumer brings a "high profile" and lots of connections to the new group.
But he said the group now must identify how to pay for a stadium that could cost $800 million or even more than $1 billion.
"All the dynamics of who picks up the costs of construction - that's the biggest challenge," he said, adding that the timing of such talk is complicated by the $130 million in stadium improvements just under way.
The group was formed to explore several stadium options, including a new stadium either at the current Orchard Park location, a new stadium somewhere else or significant renovation to Ralph Wilson Stadium.
"The seven individuals we have selected for the committee are passionate about the Buffalo Bills franchise and recognize its importance, both economically and socially, to the Western New York community," Brandon said. "These individuals have a good understanding of our franchise and the National Football League. They also understand the impact of the team's relationship with the business community and the significance to all Western New Yorkers, particularly our fans."
Some of the new members also bring key experience in dealing with Albany, which looms as a major piece of any stadium financing puzzle to emerge from the plan. Levy, for example, is former chairman of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. with strong ties in Albany, including to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Ciminelli, meanwhile, is a former chairman of the New York State Power Authority.
Their knowledge of navigating Albany's finances could prove key in any upcoming effort to build a new stadium.
Poloncarz said Thursday he welcomes the new appointments, especially Schumer and his familiarity with Goodell and NFL issues. He said establishing the group formalizes discussions that have been taking place every day for the last two years.
"My goal is to meet in the near future and set the parameters," he said. "This is not something that will be over in six months. It will be a multi-year process."
He added he hopes a clear path will be apparent within five years.
All three parties - New York State, Erie County and the Bills - can each appoint seven members to the board.
Cuomo appointed five of his seven members last month - Lt. Gov. Robert J. Duffy, Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster, Buffalo Niagara Partnership CEO Dottie Gallagher-Cohen and Empire State Development President Kenneth Adams.
Poloncarz has already appointed Deputy County Executive Richard M. Tobe; Maria R. Whyte, county commissioner of environment and planning; Michael Joseph, president of Clover Management; Alphono O'Neil-White, retired president of HealthNow New York, and Clotilde Perez-Bode, president of the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo.
Looking ahead to a new stadium follows a 2013 agreement by the state, county and team negotiators on a 10-year lease with a $400 million relocation penalty to keep the Bills in the area. The unusual agreement allowed for a one-time exception, after the seventh year, when the penalty would be lowered to $28.4 million, to give the team a single escape clause. Team officials, though, have stressed that they had no intention of leaving.
As part of the agreement, the state and county agreed to spend $54 million and $41 million, respectively, on renovations to Ralph Wilson Stadium, along with $35 million from the team. Those renovations include new video display boards, a new west end plaza, a new team store, improved gate entrance and concession areas and other technological enhancements.