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The New York Jets and New York Giants know they belong to the Empire State in name only.

New York has one NFL team. Ralph Wilson brought the Buffalo Bills here and kept them here.

"He went in when Buffalo was thriving, and he persevered when Buffalo started declining because most of the businesses moved out," Jets owner Woody Johnson told me Tuesday at the NFL's annual meetings, shortly after Wilson died.

"He was very loyal to Buffalo and that part of the state. It's the only team in New York right now."

Sen. Charles E. Schumer said today he feels obligated to make sure the Bills don't leave with their next owner. The Bills announced Schumer had been appointed to the team's seven-member committee to explore the feasibility of building a new stadium.

"There's no better way to honor Ralph Wilson's legacy than by keeping the Bills in Buffalo," Schumer told me from his office in Washington. "I spoke to him at length about his passion to keep the team here."

Tuesday afternoon was a moment Western New Yorkers have dreaded. Wilson died at his home in Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich. He was 95.

The fate of the Bills, an institutional treasure, is unknown.

The Bills leaving is "not even an alternative I want to face," Schumer said.

Anxiety is high and will remain there, especially as long as Los Angeles is without a team, and the NFL would prefer to put two there. The NFL also likes the idea of someday having teams in London and Toronto.

"The challenge is that Buffalo is a small-market team, and there are larger markets that are available," Schumer said. "But on the other hand, the revenue-sharing provisions that the NFL has put together -- and 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."

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 the hotels," Schumer 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."

The stadium-lease agreement signed last year called for the Bills, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz each to assemble a seven-member committee to explore the feasibility of building a new stadium.

The Bills put together their committee before Wilson's death. The timing of today's announcement was purely coincidental and not indicative that his passing was any impetus.

Schumer is on the committee along with Bills President and CEO Russ Brandon, Bills CFO Jeffrey Littmann, Bills executive vice president of strategic planning Mary Owen, developer Louis P. Ciminelli, New Era Cap CEO Chris Koch and venture capitalist Jordan Levy.

"I was very pleased when the Bills asked me to be one of their appointees to this commission because you know my passion to keep the Bills in Buffalo," Schumer said. "This will give me a real vantage point to do it, to encourage others to overcome whatever obstacle's in the way to keep the Bills here.

"The good news is that I think we have an NFL that is friendly to the idea and desirous of being supportive. Commissioner Goodell has been very, very supportive of keeping the Bills in Buffalo. I think if we all work together we'll succeed."

Schumer declined to share his early thoughts on whether a new stadium must be built to keep the Bills here.

"I'm not going to get into any of those details until I talk to my fellow commission members," Schumer said. "But I will do everything I can to keep the Bills in Buffalo."

Poloncarz announced his committee three weeks ago. He will serve along with:

  • Richard Tobe, deputy county executive
  • Maria R. Whyte, Erie County commissioner of environment and planning
  • Kathleen Hochul, M&T Bank vice president
  • Michael Joseph, Clover Management president
  • Alphonso O'Neil-White, retired president and CEO of HealthNow New York
  • Clotilde Perez-Bode Dedecker, Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo president

Cuomo named five of his seven members last month:

  • Bob Duffy, lieutenant governor
  • Kenneth Adams, Empire State Development president
  • Byron Brown, Buffalo mayor
  • Paul Dyster, Niagara Falls mayor
  • Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, Buffalo Niagara Partnership