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Petition: Bringing the Bills Back to the City – A Call for Transparency in Negotiations and a Chance to Have Your Voice Heard

Author: Ryan Miller


A few weeks ago, the kind folks at Buffalo Rising posted my op-ed on why I believe a new Bills stadium needs to be built downtown. Thank you to all the readers that had the stamina to make it through my long-winded passion piece. I really enjoyed reading through the comments and hearing all the different perspectives on the issue.

Two of the biggest issues raised were:

(1) Do we even need a new stadium? Can’t we just keep the old one and renovate?

(2) How much taxpayer money is going to this?” / “I’m not paying for this” / “Not on my dime.”

I think those sentiments are probably front and center on most Buffalonians minds right now, and they are certainly worthwhile topics to debate in theory. Practically speaking, however, these issues have already been decided. A renovation is not going to happen. We are getting a new stadium, and we are going to pay for a significant portion of it. I will explain in more detail why those two things are true below, but my motivation for writing this is to try to move the conversation beyond these two issues, and instead get public input on an issue that we could still have a say in. Since we are going to be paying for a large portion of this new stadium, we deserve a seat at the negotiating table. High level negotiations are already underway between Pegula Sports and Entertainment (PSE) and Erie County and New York State officials, so time is of the essence if we want to have a say in some of the yet to be decided variables pertaining to the new stadium- including what I believe is the single most important one- the location. 

Why they will build new

Simply put, money. Upgrading the current stadium is thought to be similar in price to a completely new build. I stand corrected on this matter. In my previous piece, I said that it might be more affordable to keep the existing stadium and renovate as needed. After doing more research on the matter, I came across a 2014 study that estimated the cost of upgrading the stadium to be $540 million dollars, a figure that is surely even higher today. PSE spokesperson Jim Wilkinson said as much in a recent Buffalo News article, when he revealed that PSE estimates the cost of upgrading the current stadium to the point where it would be safe and viable going forward to be “at least $1 billion”. This number is not far off from the estimated $1.4 billion budget proposed for a new build in Orchard Park. It is easy to see why a renovation is not being considered on that basis alone, but another thing to consider is that there is far more income generating potential for PSE with a new build. 

A new stadium would allow for the creation of personal seat licenses (PSLs), give PSE a blank canvas to design seating options with an increased focus on luxury and premium seating, and come with a new naming rights deal- are all of which are revenue generators for PSE that are unique to a new build. PSLs have become increasingly popular in the past few decades, largely because they help teams pay for new stadiums. 20 of the 32 current NFL teams now have PSLs, including all seven of the teams that have most recently built stadiums. For frame of reference, the average price of a PSL at the new Las Vegas Raiders stadium was $4,000, which allowed the Raiders to generate over $250 million towards their new stadium. If you’re thinking this won’t happen in Buffalo, think again. The Bills have hired “Legends” a sports firm that Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones co-owns, to represent them in their effort to build a new stadium, as well as “sell sponsorships and premium seats” for the prospective new stadium. Legends was similarly involved in the new stadiums in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. We already touched on the Las Vegas Raiders PSL prices, and prices in LA are reported to be even higher. When you consider that PSE will likely make over 200 million dollars off of PSLs alone, at least 100 million more on the naming rights deal (Los Angeles actually got 600 million for their new deal), and that the cost of building a brand new stadium is comparable to that of a renovation, it easy to understand why a new build is the only option being discussed.

Why taxpayers will be paying for a significant portion of it

Whether you agree with it or not, this is essentially the precedent that has been set in the NFL. Only three of the NFL stadiums currently in use were built without any public money: Los Angeles, New York, and New England. The table below shows the breakdown of public versus private funding for all NFL stadiums built after 1970. You can see clearly that nearly all NFL stadiums are built with significant portions of public money, with the public on average covering 56.9% of costs (63.7% if you exclude the three stadiums that were entirely privately funded). One of the reasons that this precedent has come to exist, is that if an owner is having a hard time securing public money to help with stadium costs, the threat of relocation carries a lot of weight. No politician wants to be responsible for their city’s NFL team leaving for another city, and the threat of relocation is not always just a mere negotiating tactic- just ask the people of San Diego, Oakland, or St. Louis. If we want to keep the Bills in Buffalo, helping with stadium funding is just part of the cost of doing business with the NFL.

NFL Team

Opened

Cost

Public

Private

Los Angeles Rams/Chargers

2020

$5 Billion

0.0%

100.0%

Las Vegas Raiders

2020

$1.9 Billion

37.0%

63.0%

Atlanta Falcons

2017

$1.5 Billion

30.0%

70.0%

Minnesota Vikings

2016

1.05 Billion

48.0%

52.0%

San Francisco 49ers

2014

1.3 Billion

12.0%

88.0%

New York Jets/Giants

2010

1.6 Billion

0.0%

100.0%

Dallas Cowboys

2009

1.0 Billion

32.5%

67.5%

Indianapolis Colts

2008

$720 Million

85.0%

15.0%

Arizona Cardinals

2006

$455 Million

62.7%

37.3%

Philadelphia Eagles

2003

$518 Million

36.3%

63.7%

Detroit Lions

2002

$500 Million

51.0%

49.0%

New England Patriots

2002

$325 Million

0.0%

100.0%

Seattle Seahawks

2002

$360 Million

69.8%

30.2%

Houston Texans

2002

$449 Million

43.0%

57.0%

Denver Broncos

2001

$364 Million

68.4%

38.9%

Pittsburgh Steelers

2001

$281 Million

61.1%

38.9%

Cincinnati Bengals

2000

$450 Million

94.4%

5.6%

Cleveland Browns

1999

$290 Million

74.7%

25.3%

Tennessee Titans

1999

$290 Million

70.9%

29.1%

Baltimore Ravens

1998

$220 Million

90.0%

10.0%

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

1998

$194 Million

100.0%

0.0%

Washington Football Team

1997

$250 Million

28.0%

72.0%

Carolina Panthers

1996

$242 Million

23.0%

77.0%

Jacksonville Jaguars

1995

$121 Million

85.8%

14.2%

Miami Dolphins

1987

$115 Million

90.0%

10.0%

New Orleans Saints

1975

$134 Million

100.0%

0.0%

Buffalo Bills

1973

$22 Million

100.0%

0.0%

Kansas City Chiefs

1972

$43 Million

100.0%

0.0%

Source: www.johnlocke.org/policy-position/publicly-funded-stadiums

What has yet to be decided? Is downtown still an option?

Barring a catastrophic breakdown in negotiations the Bills are going to be staying in the area for a long time, and will soon have a new partially taxpayer funded stadium to call home. In the overwhelmingly likely case of a public-private partnership for stadium funding, the public deserves a seat at the negotiating table as well, especially considering that historically the public ends up paying for the majority of the costs of NFL stadiums. Our elected county and state officials are tasked with representing our interests on this matter, but to my knowledge there has been no attempt on their part to get public input since negotiations started. I suppose the survey that PSE sent out a couple years ago to fans was an attempt at getting our input, but so far the results of that survey have stayed between the Pegulas and our local government officials. If we are a major partner in funding the stadium, why can’t these results be released to the public?

A 2015 Buffalo News poll found that the majority of Western New Yorkers preferred to have the next Bills stadium built downtown. With that being the case, you would think there would be some explanation from PSE and/or local government as to why downtown does not seem to be being considered any longer. We deserve transparency and a voice on this matter. The speculation is simply that it’s significantly more expensive to build downtown. According to a recent Tim Graham article in The Athletic, PSE’s proposed budget for a downtown stadium is $2.5 billion versus $1.4 billion dollars for a new build in Orchard Park. On the surface, a $1.1 billion dollar difference seems enormous, but the difference in cost can largely be accounted for by the necessary associated infrastructure improvements required to put an NFL stadium downtown. If that truly is the only significant barrier to a downtown stadium, then I think we are making a colossal mistake by building new in Orchard Park. 

As I outlined in my op-ed, the costs associated with these infrastructural changes should not be seen as a barrier because:

  1. Many of them (like a massive expansion of our existing public transportation system in the form of more train lines and bus routes) need to happen anyway for Buffalo to continue to grow. In every census block in the City of Buffalo, 33% or more of the households do not have a vehicle, while 58% of all jobs in Erie County are not reachable by public transportation. A lot of the poverty, health and educational disparities, and inequity that plague certain areas of the city can be explained by decreased access to quality food, housing, and job opportunities, all of which are intimately related to our poor public transportation system. It’s estimated that Buffalo’s annual GDP could be increased by 4.3 billion dollars (more than the double the combined annual budget of Erie and Niagara Counties) if it were able to eliminate its racial disparities and divides. A rising tide lifts all boats. Increased investment in public transportation is necessary to for the renaissance Buffalo is experiencing to continue, as well as to bring the Bills downtown. It’s a win-win.
  2. Some of the infrastructure changes seek to correct long standing city planning mistakes that presently limit our city’s potential, and already have research and political momentum behind them. Examples include reuniting the east side by converting NYS-33/Kensington Expressway into a tunnel with a fully restored Humboldt Parkway on top of it, and tearing down the skyway to open more of the Outer Harbor and Canalside to meaningful development. Whether or not the skyway needs come down for a downtown stadium is likely dependent on the exact location of the stadium. I don’t want to turn this into a debate on the skyway. My point is simply that issues like the skyway should not be seen as a deciding factor against downtown, because they are issues that need be definitively addressed whether the stadium goes downtown or not. It would be infuriating to me if the Bills chose to build a new stadium in Orchard Park due to something like the skyway, only to see the skyway get torn down and a new efficient route to and from the Southtowns built 10-15 years from now. 
  3. Perhaps most important of all, there is currently a 1 trillion dollar bill that just made it through the Senate (and is heading to the House) that is literally dedicated towards subsidizing INFRASTRUCTURE (including a massive emphasis on public transportation). Many of the infrastructure costs could likely be covered at least in part through this bill, and so its possible that most of the extra costs for the downtown stadium option would not have to be paid for by local taxpayers (or the Pegulas for that matter).  Of course, all of us would be paying for it through our federal taxes, but so would everyone else in the country at an equal rate based on their income. Whether you agree with the bill or not, if it makes it through the House, we are all going to be paying for it, so we might as well see tangible benefits from it.

If the infrastructure costs can largely be covered by the new federal infrastructure bill, then the only other major cost associated with a downtown stadium, is the cost of acquiring the land. For frame of reference, the Raiders spent $77.5 million dollars to purchase the land in Las Vegas to build their stadium. The price tag in downtown Buffalo would depend on the exact location and who currently owns it, but even if it did cost nearly the same amount as it did in Las Vegas, when you are talking about a total cost in the $1.4 to $2.5 billion range, $80 million dollars should not be a deciding factor one way or the other.

Conclusion

A public-private partnership for funding a brand-new Bills stadium is imminent with total costs in the 1.4 to 2.5 billion dollar range. If public money is being used in that large of a quantity, the public needs to benefit in more ways than simply preventing their NFL franchise from relocating. Not everyone that pays taxes in Western New York cares about the Bills, but even those that don’t care about the NFL would still benefit either directly or indirectly from the massive investment in public transportation associated with a downtown stadium. The ability to easily get to and from the suburbs will give everyone better access to all the job opportunities in the area, thereby helping the local economy grow by expanding hiring pools in both directions. It would also give residents of the city better access to quality healthcare, food, and housing options. Furthermore, having a train that could take people directly from a theoretical station in an outlying suburb, right into the heart of the city for a downtown event or night out, benefits both residents of the suburb and downtown businesses. Conversely, it would also make it easier for city residents to go spend their money at the businesses and restaurants in the outlying suburb.

We are at a watershed moment in the history of Buffalo. The zeitgeist is ripe with progress, change, and growth. Longstanding city planning errors are on the verge of being corrected, and the city and its surrounding areas are growing for the first time in 70 years. A downtown Bills stadium, along with the associated investment in public transportation and infrastructure improvements that would come with it, has the power to transform our city back to its former turn of the 20th century glory. City planning projects like restoring Humboldt Parkway, removing the skyway, and the location of the Bills stadium do not have to exist as isolated ideas in their own separate vacuums. We need our political representation to take a step back, recognize how all of these taxpayer funded projects are interrelated, and come up with a connected and holistic approach that equitably benefits all of us in this area going forward.  To me, all of that centers around a downtown Bills stadium. 

So what do you think? It’s not too late to have your voice heard, please answer the poll questions below, and if interested sign the petition as well. The results of the poll and the signatures on the petition will be presented to our local elected officials with the hope of inspiring transparency and open dialogue between us, as well as stimulating legitimate consideration of a downtown stadium. 

Poll 1

If the overall cost to local taxpayers was relatively similar, which location do you prefer for a new Bills stadium?

Downtown/City of Buffalo
Orchard Park
Created with QuizMaker

Poll 2

If the total cost to local taxpayers was significantly higher to build downtown, say for example its was $500 million more expensive, what location would you prefer?

Downtown/City of Buffalo
Orchard Park
Created with Quiz Maker

*Please Note: The polling software has a way of filtering out votes based on IP address and other factors to identify people trying to vote more than once. While it will allow you to answer the question in the poll more than once, only one vote will be recorded no matter how many times you click through the poll. 

You can view the poll results by clicking the “next” button on the screen polling website – once you cast your vote, the polling site is automatically served up. 

Petition

If you answered option 1 to any of the two questions above, please take the time to sign this petition, which will be presented to local government officials and help ensure our voice is heart on this matter.

Click here to sign petition

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