Is a new Bills stadium another dreaded ‘silver bullet’
Updated 7:28 PM , July 12, 2014
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.