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Is a new Bills stadium another dreaded ‘silver bullet’

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Generalizations not backed by evidence, pronouncements without a premise, conventional wisdom that doesn’t sound smart.

The idea doesn’t make any more sense to me now than when it was first floated, yet the “new stadium” drumbeat just gets louder.

Logic can’t stop it. Questions won’t muffle it. Concerns barely slow it.

I’m getting flashbacks to the dreaded “silver bullet” days of gotta-do-it, taxpayer-subsidized, salvation-promising projects that had little foundation in common sense and, if they were built, did us more harm than good.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

I don’t want to sound cynical about projections for a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills. I understand the wisdom of getting out in front of this, of exploring various options before the next owner comes to town. But for all of the talk-radio talk I’ve heard, the online discussions I’ve read and the conversations I’ve had, I have yet to come across anything that explained why a new stadium makes sense for the next owner, or for this community.

Repeated often enough, myths and suppositions take on the aura of conventional wisdom. Before rushing headlong into an $800 million mistake, we might want to flesh some of them out.

1. A new stadium will keep the Bills in Buffalo: Anyone who echoes this needs to explain how and why. A prime reason communities build new palaces is to pad an owner’s wallet. A new stadium comes with more luxury suites, club seats, sponsorships, local advertising and other unshared owner revenue. Which is, to my mind, where our “new stadium” argument collapses. It’s no use to build more luxury seating if we don’t have the corporate and private wealth to fill it. It makes no sense to increase the supply of something for which there is little or no demand.

The community, as a condition of late owner Ralph Wilson signing the 1998 lease deal, had to buy a relatively modest $11 million worth of luxury seating. We barely cleared that bar, and only after a yearlong effort to regionalize the franchise. In the subsequent 16 years, I have yet to hear a Bills official say the stadium needs more luxury seating, or reveal any demand for it.

It’s no surprise. The region hasn’t been invaded by Fortune 500 companies over the past two decades – we still don’t have a single, home-based one. The area’s population has declined, not grown. So who is going to buy the extra luxury suites in a new stadium, or – for corporations that already own one – going to pay significantly more to re-up?

One business executive, whose company shells out $140,000 annually for a suite, was told the price in a new stadium might bump it up to $250,000.

“I can’t speak for anyone else,” he told me, “but we’re not paying that.”

Indeed, the current $130 million stadium face-lift is mostly about enhancing the fan experience, with better concessions, scoreboards and entrances. It’s not about adding luxury seating (although some existing seats will be relocated). What the Bills rake in now is, as far as I can tell, just about the best we can do – and a new stadium doesn’t change that reality.

2. A new stadium will spur development: I’m not an economist, but I don’t see how a mammoth edifice that sits empty about 355 days a year, and requires vast acreage for parking, is a catalyst for revival. It won’t promote economic growth, it’ll choke it. What has the stadium in Orchard Park done, other than prop up a few bars? The nearby car dealerships aren’t even open on Sundays, even though 70,000 people flock to the neighborhood. That’s why communities usually build these things on cheap land near a highway. Football stadiums are like casinos – single purpose, in-and-out destinations. Combine a football stadium with a convention center? Not unless it connects to downtown Buffalo, where a critical mass of hotels, restaurants, bars and theaters are propped up by the current convention center. Build a new convention center too distant, and a downtown still in recovery takes a huge hit. There’s already a glut of vacant office space, with both the One Seneca Tower and the Statler nearly empty. Take away the convention center, and it multiplies the pain.

3. The next owner will want a new stadium: Really? Not if it’s going to cost him more money than it makes him. We don’t have the corporate or private wealth to buy significantly more luxury seating, advertising, sponsorships or other unshared revenue. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said a new stadium only gets built if significant private dollars are spent. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, it’s a 50-50 split between taxpayers and the next owner on a new $800 million edifice. Why would an owner who just paid in the neighborhood of $1 billion for the team be inclined to drop another $400 million on a new stadium, which (See No. 1) isn’t going to dramatically lift his bottom line?

Wilson in recent years annually pocketed an estimated $35 million pre-tax from the Bills, largely due to the owners’ share of the $7 billion TV broadcast deal the NFL landed three years ago. If I’m the next owner (full disclosure: I’m not submitting a bid), I’d rather pocket that money than use it to pay off my share of a new-stadium bill. Particularly when I’m making plenty of Benjamins in a just-improved playpen.

4. Buffalo doesn’t succeed because people don’t dream big: Actually, Buffalo stagnated for years because we didn’t have confidence in our own resources, because we looked to outsiders to tell us what to do and because we kept chasing – with taxpayer dollars – big, dumb ideas that did us more harm than good. Some, unfortunately, got built – and the ones that weren’t wasted precious time and energy.

The Main Place Mall sacrificed a key swath of downtown for an ugly monolith that’s now nearly empty. The Main Street pedestrian mall blindsided stores already reeling from suburban flight, all for a too-short transit line of questionable need. A proposed convention center a decade ago would have obliterated streets that are now part of downtown’s revival. A planned big-box retailer on the downtown waterfront a few years ago – backed by virtually every politician and business leader – would have been the equivalent of civic suicide. And on and on. Yet we never seem to lose our lust for “silver bullets” – and, to my mind, the new stadium looks like a reload.

5. Our stadium is old: So what? The place, as the saying goes, has “good bones.” We are lucky to have a stadium with great sight lines and a structural shelf life that extends for another 40 years. It got a $62 million face-lift in 1998, is undergoing a $130 million upgrade, and has the potential for further renovation. Any future retrofit can be done for far less than the cost of a new build, in a way that protects an owner’s profit and doesn’t totally gouge taxpayers. Kansas City recently finished a $375 million upgrade to Arrowhead Stadium, and Green Bay has done similar renewals with 57-year-old Lambeau Field.

“I have no objection to continuing” with the current stadium, County Executive Mark Poloncarz recently told me, “as long as it works for the next owner.”

I understand the desire to do what it takes to keep the Bills here and to make the next owner happy, within taxpayer-digestible limits. But it’s not enough to just be passionate about this. I think we also have to be smart. Spending some $800 million on a football stadium of questionable need – and of questionable benefit to the next owner – is the definition of absurdity. That’s especially true in an economically challenged community that needs to stretch every taxpayer dollar.

A new football stadium sounds to me like the equivalent of a luxury car you don’t need, can’t afford and, after the initial thrill wears off, wish you hadn’t bought. Like other “silver bullets” we’ve either absorbed or dodged over the years, this thing seems like a mistake waiting to happen.

Maybe there’s a game-changing, opinion-altering argument to be made. So far, I haven’t heard it.

email: desmonde@buffnews.com

  • Troy Berkely

    First of all this entire argument is flawed by merely leaving out many influential variables, not to mention suppositions by societies social stratification that everything associated with the argument of building a new stadium has to fall in the same template of the same inside the boxing thinking as usual. 1. Assuming that corporate sponsors are the only motivating factor for increased revenues, then If the owner does decide he wants to build a new stadium using his money, then he can do what he deems fit. Who is to say that building more luxury suites has to be the lone factor of wanting a new stadium?

    2. You also assuming that building a new stadium is only going to be used for one thing, and will be empty for a large portion of the year. Why? Who says that it has to be that way? Why can't it be a well thought out plan in which will serve multiple purposes? There was already a decent proposal by GBSEC, LLC has retained HKS Design, Inc.,
    a global leader in design and project management of sports and
    entertainment venues. HKS has begun preliminary site and building
    design for a space that can be configured to breakdown into smaller,
    coherent sub-spaces suitable for conventions and other types of sporting
    & entertainment events on a multi-season basis. HKS is also currently
    working on exciting new projects involving professional sports in
    Oakland, CA and for the Minnesota Vikings. Most recently, they have
    delivered landmark venues such as: Yankee Stadium, Dallas Cowboys
    Stadium and Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. HKS has made 4 visits to
    Buffalo for research and preliminary site determination and suitability
    purposes and has prepared a preliminary master site plan presentation.

    3 &4 Also why not leave out the other factors while your at it Don, that the remaining empty spaces in the downtown area are mainly the work of the current Oligarch government both on the local and state levels that have done nothing to either revitalize the area, but to raise taxes and stifled any hopes of attracting new businesses by creating incentives that would be lucrative for businesses to want to come here. Or the fact, the same Oligarch government whose self interests, lining their pockets are the ones who are killing small businesses and decimated the middle class with their diversionary tactics of legislated failed policies. This does not really have anything to do with building a new stadium, unless you are making the argument leave to Government to make it happen, and we already have seen as it is playing out in current day how that works.

    5. Yeah sure why not just renovate the Ralph? Same old way of thinking that has gotten people of Buffalo a whole lot of nothing, because not being able to have a vision, is much easier in putting in the effort to have a bigger vision for Buffalo period'

    Hey Don? Weren't you the same guy who made an argument against Walenda not wearing a tether before he made his crossing of the Niagara Falls, because we live in a civilized society? I guess that is why you work at a rag like the TBN than somewhere else more prestigious where someone would actually read your tripe. Why does anybody have to convince you on the contrary of this argument? Seems to me that is not a very high standard in which to measure your words, your weak argument, and you narrow point of view.

    • George Winston III

      I would say that it is a fairly accurate statement that one main reason for building a new stadium, (assuming the old one does not look like the Rock Pile yet) is for the team to raise their revenue stream in areas where they do not have to share revenues with the NFL and visiting teams. I do think the author raises some good points, as do you, as to the economic health of the area and the viability of building an entire stadium for luxury boxes that may never sell. On the other hand, as you point out, people also need to have vision and foresight to look ahead to the future as well. Staying inside the comfort zone of a well defined pre-established box will never get you there. It is a tough call. Very tough call. Perhaps Trump will end up with the team and will be the next Jerry Jones of the NFL and build his own palace so he can name it Trump Stadium! Personally, I'd be happy with a dome on Ralph Wilson Stadium as the infrastructure to get 70K fans to and from is already in place.

    • chip kennedy

      I was with you untill you started personal attacks against Donn Esmonde and the news. Thats not what the area needs to hear...We need to hear all opinions.

      • Troy Berkely

        It is not a personal attack, it is just an opinion in which I have on many occasions disagreed with Don Esmonde's positions and points of views. He has made some really lame comments over the years, which only prove that his scope and way of thinking is very narrow minded, and if Buffalo is to survive and grow into the future, then always being the defeatist conservative narrative is not what the city nor its readers need. Sorry you don't agree, but that is the way I see it, and I am sick and tired of the inferiority complex that TBN's always tries to condition it's readers with, and Don Esmonde is no exception! Action speaks louder than words!

  • William Kyriakakos

    I am totally against a new stadium just for the simple reason that I do not wish the Bills to play in a sterile dome environment with some whack retractable roof. Buffalo would lose it's identity for windy and snowy games. Ralph Wilson stadium is just fine.

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About the reporters

Vic Carucci returned to The Buffalo News as a Bills beat reporter in September. Carucci covered the Bills for 17 years before joining NFL.com as a columnist in 1999. Prior to rejoining The News, he spent three years as a senior editor for the Cleveland Browns.

Tim Graham returned to The Buffalo News in 2011 after covering the NFL for three years at ESPN and for one year at the Palm Beach Post. Before that, the Cleveland native spent seven seasons on the Buffalo Sabres beat for The News and was president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.

Jay Skurski joined The News in January 2009. The Lewiston native attended St. Francis High School before graduating from the University of South Florida.