Opinion: New Stadium a Must if City Wishes to Keep Bills

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The Buffalo News (New York)


When County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz introduced proposals recently for a new convention center in downtown Buffalo, he said the first question for citizens to ask is, does our region want to stay in the convention business? (Our vote is "yes.")

The same question should be asked when discussing the idea of building a new stadium for the Bills: Does Buffalo want to remain in the football business?

We say yes to that, also. And to stay here long-term, the Bills will inevitably need a new stadium. The price for one will likely be more than $1 billion.

There will be hard choices to make about how to pay for it. Last May, Bills co-owner Kim Pegula told The News "I don't even know if we can get there," when it comes to agreeing on financing for a new facility.

This week, Poloncarz said that building a new stadium "is not in the cards," and would be too much of a financial stretch.

And, he added, Terry and Kim Pegula are not demanding one. Nevertheless, the fact that Pegula Sports and Entertainment on Tuesday announced the hiring of Christopher Schoepflin, the state's top economic development official in Western New York, as vice president of external affairs and strategic development suggests that a new stadium is at least on the owners' minds. Schoepflin wasn't brought aboard to shake hands at golf outings.

The current county lease on New Era Field will run out in five years. The Pegulas and Poloncarz are starting to stake out positions and float trial balloons. The balloons may not be full of hot air, but they should not be taken as anything more than conversation starters. The closer we get to the deadline on the lease expiring, the more serious the talks will get.

The Pegulas' public position is that the team is fine where it is, but there is pressure from the National Football League to move the team out of its outdated facility and into a new one. The goal is to produce more revenue.

In March 2016, New York Giants owner John Mara told The News' Vic Carucci that the Bills could be at a competitive disadvantage if they did not erect a new playing facility.

"It gets tougher and tougher to compete when all these new stadiums are going up and" the Bills are in their original building, Mara said.

Some NFL observers see only self-interest in Mara's words. Each of the NFL's 32 teams receives an equal share of the league's "national revenue" each year. The majority of the money - which last year topped $8 billion per team - is from television deals, but there is revenue from other sources such as licensing and merchandise sales. That means when the Bills, who play in the NFL's second-smallest market, make more money, a share of the increase enriches big-market franchises like the Giants, Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots.

There are plenty of ticket-buying fans who are happy with New Era Field where it is, including the tailgaters who turn a home game into a weekend-long festival.

Sentimental attachments are understandable. Some people keep their old car until it falls apart, but as a region we can't afford to drive this stadium into the ground.

One school of thought is that negotiations will commence after the team improves its fortunes on the field. The 1-3 Bills are in a period of rebuilding, which takes time. Asking for tax dollars to be spent on a new stadium will make more sense when the team is putting more games into the win column.

In the big picture, the Bills belong here. There are good arguments for different locations for a stadium, including downtown, where it would help in the rebuilding of the region's urban core. It needs to be part of the discussion.

The concept of combining a new convention center with a new football stadium has been talked about, and there's no reason to dismiss it. Poloncarz recently downplayed it as an issue, but the model has worked in other cities. Merging two multimillion-dollar projects into one could well produce economies of scale that soften the bite on taxpayers. It would help avoid building a billion-dollar behemoth that is used only a handful of times per year.

The Bills are part of our civic fabric and if we have to pony up some tax dollars or added ticket fees to keep the team from becoming the Portland or St. Louis Bills, that's the cost of remaining a major-league city.

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October 7, 2018


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