The stadium story that wasn’t a story

If there is one thing that unifies Western New York more than anything, it’s the love of this community for the Buffalo Bills.  Win or lose, through snowstorms and sunny days, the fan base is as solid as any in the National Football League.

Those strong emotions, of course, ebb and flow over time.  There have been more losing seasons than winning ones.  There have been long playoff draughts.  We are now, however, in one of the high points in the team’s history.  Four playoff appearances in the past five seasons and some great players, led by Josh Allen, have fandom spirits riding high.

As all of this develops the team’s ten-year lease for what is now known as Highmark Stadium has run out this year.  A deal is done for a new $1.54 billion facility that is expected to come online in 2026.  As a long-time observer of such things the most amazing part of the new stadium’s plans has been the relative ease with which the financing was put together, a site was selected, and legal issues were completed.  It could have been a different and more difficult story.

That is not to say that there were not issues raised and problems to be resolved over the past year and a half.  Many folks wanted the stadium to be built in Buffalo, but I don’t recall anyone offering a credible plan to come up with an extra billion dollars for the project.

There have also been environmental impact issues raised.  The Community Benefit Agreement took months to put together, but at the end of the day Legislature Chairwoman April McCants-Baskin and Republican Legislative Leader John Mills led the way in working out a plan.  That the Bills might get to write off the annual contributions on their taxes seems like a minor matter.  One hundred million dollars plus over 30 years will still produce a nice boost for community organizations and activities.

The share of county and state money is about half of what will be spent in Tennessee to build a new home for the Titans.  Their “old” home came online just 24 years ago.

Erie County government’s share of the funding, $250 million, was a big lift.  With the encouragement of Republican legislators and the agreement of County Executive Mark Poloncarz and Democratic legislators the county’s down payment on its share was increased from $100 million to $125 million.  The final deal was approved unanimously.  The community seemed mostly supportive of the deal.  There were no pitchfork marches headed toward the Rath Building.

It wasn’t so simple when Rich/Ralph Wilson/New Era/Bills/Highmark Stadium first came to be.

When the franchise first came to town in a new league that did not have a predictable lifetime the logical place for the Bills to play was in War Memorial Stadium.  It was ugly and decrepit.  Adding a roof and few thousand seats didn’t help matters much.  But we had a pro football team in town!

As the American Football League prospered and then in its eighth year merged with the National Football League, the old rockpile did not have a future.  Team owner Ralph Wilson started exploring his options in other cities.  The community got anxious, but the political leaders didn’t exactly spring into action.

Beginning in 1968 and extending through 1971 there were endless debates about building a new stadium.  The Buffalo Evening News fought the Courier Express.  A site at the “crossroads” of Main and South Park was supported by the Courier, likely in part because a stadium in the neighborhood of the News printing and distribution facilities might mess up paper deliveries.

A Houston developer who had been the leader in construction of that city’s Astrodome, Judge Roy Hofheinz, became involved in discussions here, as did a local car dealer, Edward Cottrell.  They wanted to build a domed stadium in Lancaster.  Erie County and the Hofheinz/Cottrell company, Kenford, signed a contract to build the domed stadium.

It got messy after that.  In 1970 the county reversed course on the stadium deal after bids on a project expected to cost $50 million came in at $70 million.  Lawsuits ensued (and were not resolved for nearly 20 years).  Along the way two Erie County Legislators were convicted of accepting bribes and went to prison.

At the end a consensus developed for building a low-cost ($22 million) stadium in Orchard Park.  Construction began in April 1972 and the stadium opened 16 months later in 1973.  The Bills signed a 25-year lease.

As the original lease approached expiration in 1998 the administration of County Executive Dennis Gorski negotiated a new 15-year lease.  There was a spirited public debate about how to pay for renovations of the facility costing $63 million.  In the end all funding came from the state.  Governor George Pataki was running for re-election that year.

When that lease was nearly at its end County Executive Poloncarz negotiated a ten-year deal for renovations costing $130 million.  The state provided $54 million and the county $41 million.  The Bills contributed $35 million – the first time the team had provided renovation funding.

Fast forward to 2022 and the need for a new stadium lease to keep the Bills in Buffalo.  The team was looking for a new building.  The price went up, to more than $1 billion.

That ten-figure price is mind-boggling when you consider the history of what came before.  Big lifts were required by the county and the state.  It is the type of project that in the past would have brought on heavy duty political fights among local and state leaders.

Politicians got involved in the issue, but those politicians were basically gubernatorial candidates running against Governor Kathy Hochul (Jumaane Williams, Tom Suozzi, Lee Zeldin) and some mostly downstate state legislators, many of whom were from the progressive/socialist wing of Democratic politics. 

The 2023-2024 state budget includes $455 million as a “loan” to rebuild Belmont Racetrack in New York City.  Tens of millions of dollars are regularly shuffled off to the New York subway system and railroads running into the city from the suburbs.  There is usually hardly a whimper about appropriations such as those.

All public works projects attract varying degrees of public support and opposition.  For example consider some major local upcoming road renovation projects, which will encourage debate about spending issues, community impact, and environmental concerns.  It comes with the territory.

As for the new football stadium, the deal presents a pretty solid guarantee that Western New York will be cheering on the Buffalo Bills for decades to come.  Thanks to the hard work of Erie County ‘s political leadership and the Governor, a project costing a billion and a half dollars came together in a very community consensus sort of way.  Go Bills!

Twitter @kenkruly