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New Stadium Prospectus: Economics – Balancing Expectations with a Desire for Something More

Author: Lance Sabo | Part 2 of 6

Countless economic studies have concluded that sports stadiums by themselves, except during construction, do little to promote economic growth. As we consider the possibility of building a new stadium, it is important that we temper our expectations or at the very least, don’t fall for the “build it and they will come” philosophy that is often promoted with these types of projects.

Ralph Wilson Stadium (RWS), despite its many positive attributes, serves as a prime example of a stadium that is isolated and will never be an economic catalyst for development. In 40+ years, since its construction in Orchard Park, there has been no significant developmental impacts that can be directly attributed to the stadium itself. Therefore, it is doubtful that a new stadium on the same site would provide a greater economic impact on our region.

Many believe that a new stadium will automatically create new long-term job opportunities, but a new open air stadium in any location will simply transfer jobs to a different location. In order for the new stadium to result in job creation we need to expand the opportunity for the venue to host a greater number of events, which necessitates that a domed stadium be co-located with a convention center.

It should be noted that modern stadiums by design have a business model that is similar to gaming facilities and casinos. They are meant to be an all-inclusive entertainment experience that generates as much revenue as possible for the team that operates it. That being the case, is it possible to change this dynamic and if so, how?

To answer this question I reached out to various university and college educators in both the economic and urban planning disciplines for possible solutions. I contacted Dr. Ernest Sternberg PhD., the chairman of University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture: Urban and Regional Planning department and I was referred to an article that he had written that was published in “The Journal of Architectural and Planning Research” in 2002.

In the article, Dr. Sternberg discusses how sports facilities rarely serve as “catalysts” for economic development and that the convergence of a large group of people for a specific event does not necessarily translate into dollars flowing into surrounding businesses. According to the article there are several key design elements that any project of this type must possess, if there are hopes that it has a catalytic effect on the local area:

1)     “The facility must be near commercial establishments (or commercial sites) that could benefit from a catalytic effect.”

2)     “The facility must be linked over a critically short distance to a concentration of commercial venues.”

3)     “The venues must be within walking distance of each other.”

4)     “Entrance and exit points shape the pattern of pedestrian traffic.”

To have all of these traits at a facility the size of an NFL stadium with the sea of parking lots that are necessary to accommodate its sixty five thousand plus patrons seems like a pretty tall order, if not an impossible one. In truth, it will be difficult to place a new stadium in a location that will meet all these parameters and also make all interested parties happy. There are various locations that are currently being discussed that meet most of key design elements, but none meet all.

One way to make up for these shortfalls is to create a master plan that will place the stadium in an urban setting, near a commercial area that is prime for commercial and residential redevelopment, and that is reasonably close to other local attractions; such as Larkinville, Harbor Center, etc.

The new stadium should be a key component, but not the only component of the project. We can’t expect a pedestrian friendly environment to simply evolve from a stadium’s presence. Canalside, the Outer Harbor and the soon to completed Harbor Center should serve as examples of what can be accomplished with the proper planning and their models should be emulated if we build a new stadium.

One might argue that the success of Larkinville (lead image) is proof that an area can evolve naturally from one key element. Unfortunately, Larkinville is currently the exception and not the rule, as it is the only example of the successful redevelopment of a neighborhood outside of the downtown core.

We should credit the success of Larkinville for changing the perception of what is possible for Buffalo inner city neighborhoods. It wasn’t long ago that Larkinville was a forgotten neighborhood that lost its identity when the manufacturing jobs ceased to exist and it is now considered an extension of Buffalo’s downtown. It has opened the door for the possibility of redeveloping other areas of the inner city because it proved that new and old can be incorporated and preserved. But, more importantly perceptions can be changed and new identities established that are vastly different from those of the past.

Although many stadiums never reach the economic potential promised by the various groups lobbying for their construction, I believe that our community should expect more from our investment than what we have received from RWS. The new stadium should be integrated into our city and not located on a suburban island. The stadium needs to part of a revitalization plan for an underdeveloped area within the boundaries of the city of Buffalo. The core of our city has grown by leaps and bounds in the past decade, and the prospect of a new stadium provides a great opportunity to continue that growth.

Also see New Stadium Prospectus: Finance – Truth, Misconceptions & Consequences; part 1 of 6.

Lance Sabo is currently a master’s student at Buffalo State College and will complete his master’s degree in economics and finance in the fall of 2014. Serves in the Air Force Reserves at the Niagara Falls Airbase and has been a Federal Civil Servant for 20 years. Contact Lance Sabo | twitter Lance_Sabo


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