The three co-chairmen of a new committee examining whether the Buffalo Bills should play in a new stadium or remain in a greatly retrofitted stadium in Orchard Park acknowledged Tuesday a sense of urgency after the death of Bills’ owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. eight days ago.
But they described only in general terms how the panel will go about its work over the coming months.
“The most important thing is to focus on data, focus on facts, don’t let emotion get in the way,” Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy told reporters after the New Stadium Working Group met for about two hours in the Buffalo-Niagara Convention Center in its first session.
Duffy called the Bills – the only NFL team to play its home games in the state – “the only New York State team” and said that he and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo are determined to keep the Bills here.
But the public should not expect the panel to recommend a course of action anytime soon.
Duffy and the other chairmen said the stadium working group will start gathering and analyzing data, an effort that could take months, if not years.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said. “We understand the seriousness. We understand the urgency. And we understand how people feel about the Buffalo Bills. We all feel exactly the same way.”
Aside from Duffy, the panel’s other chairmen are Russ Brandon, the Bills president and CEO, and Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz. The three entities they represent are parties to the lease agreement that now governs the Bills’ use of the Erie County-owned Ralph Wilson Stadium until 2023.
The lease, secured late in 2012, called for those entities to devote $130 million to stadium upgrades and to each appoint seven members to a group that will determine whether it makes the best long-term sense to keep using the stadium or build a new, modern arena somewhere in or near Buffalo. Given the trends in the NFL, construction would probably involve some, or much, taxpayer support.
Clouding the picture is the death last week of Bills founder Wilson, who as the team’s owner was committed to keeping the team in Western New York. While the Buffalo Bills will be run for a time by a trust established by Wilson’s estate, the team will eventually be sold, and the wishes of any new owner cannot be predicted.
The lease invokes a heavy $400 million penalty on any owner attempting to move the team to another city. But in the lease’s seventh year, the penalty falls to a more manageable $28.4 million.
“I’ve said this from day one,” Brandon said, “my sole responsibility is to focus on the viability of this franchise moving forward. And that’s what I will continue to do. And everyone at One Bills Drive will continue to do that as well.”
Poloncarz stressed that the committee, which shows all signs of conducting its business behind closed doors, as state law allows for a panel of its type, can only recommend a course of action. The panel cannot, on its own, make that course of action into reality.
“If people assume that decisions are being made at this meeting which are lock-set and are going to be determining the future of this team, that is not the case,” Poloncarz said. “It is in itself an advisory committee, which will be making recommendations based on the accumulation of information that is going to take some time. ”
“This is not going to be a short process,” he continued. “I have already gone on record saying I wouldn’t be shocked if this takes two years at least.”
The Bills were well represented Tuesday, though one of the team’s seven appointees, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., did not attend the first gathering because he was in Washington on Senate business. Schumer, in addition to being a powerful political figure in the nation’s capital, enjoys a cordial relationship with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Of the 20 committee members appointed so far, 16 were in their chairs when reporters and photographers were allowed into their meeting room for a photo opportunity.
Fielding questions later from a clutch of reporters, Brandon, Duffy and Poloncarz did not specify exactly what sorts of data they will analyze, how the panel will operate in practical terms and when its members will meet again. The next session, Poloncarz said, has not yet been scheduled.
He and other county officials had tried to keep the location of Tuesday’s first meeting secret. But word leaked out well in advance.
“Liken today to an opening syllabus of what the process will be moving forward,” Brandon said. “We do not have a set agenda at this point. But we went through a lot of information ... a great deal of education today, and we will continue to do so.”