In the early 1970s, as they replaced the old Rockpile, there was a deal put in place to move the stadium to the Southtowns because the Southtowns might pull out of a revenue and tax sharing deal. Whether or not this would have occurred is a matter of debate, but politics is like sausage: the results are a combination of fats, protein, and flavoring. Whether you like it or not, it’s usually a combination of ingredients that represents a desired flavor. How it’s made is often best left unknown to the majority of us. From butchering to flavoring, it’s definitely not pretty.
Don’t expect anything less than this when a new Ralph Wilson Stadium is discussed. I’ve worked in government for years and political compromise is not easy. It will require politics to keep the Bills in the Buffalo area and in a great stadium. In this article, I am assuming that the Bills will be sold to an ownership group that will not relocate the team and that Toronto is not the destination of a “local” team. I am also assuming that a temporary relocation during massive renovations to Ralph Wilson Stadium is not possible and therefore, a new stadium will be built in the next 5-7 years while the current stadium is in use. My last assumption is that the team will have a subsequent 25-30 year lease to make it profitable over the long term.
A quick primer on government finance: When people see “$1 billion spending,” much of the public sees that as $1 billion paid out, today, from their tax dollars. That’s not the way it works. Typically a government finances major construction through guaranteed municipal bonds. For example, you buy a bond for $100 and the government agrees to pay you $125 in 10 years. This $100 is typically used to finance government operations or building. A good government financial plan understands that the value of what they invest in (roads, parks, stadia, etc.) needs to generate more positive economic activity in the form of population growth, economic productivity for businesses, hospitals and universities, and keeping society safe with police, fire and EMT services. If the net investment of $100 produces more than $125 in economic activity over the duration of the 10 years, then the government has wisely managed its funds. In regards to the stadium, if the Bills and the local and state governments invest $1 billion over 25 years, roughly 40 million per year, and the net economic return is greater than $1 billion, then the investment is a gain for the area. If it produces less than a billion in economic return over 25 years, it’d be considered a failure by the government. There have been many government investments that have failed because they didn’t look at a realistic return. Rochester’s Fast Ferry is an example. Did anyone think out the realistic return on Rochesterians taking a boat to Toronto and then coming back? Who thought that was a good use of public funds? If the government is involved in constructing a new Bills stadium and they want to make the stadium last 50 years, they will have to be realistic in the finances of the field. The government will have to make sure the stadium serves as an economic generator – perhaps a retractable roof to make it more likely to attract large concerts? The stadium group will have to show that an investment will have a strong return that benefits the taxpayers.
The way I see it, we have several options and I’m going to go over them in what I believe to be the least-to-most advantageous order: Batavia, Orchard Park, Downtown Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Tonawanda, near the river. Any stadium is going to require compromise, intelligence, and most importantly, leadership. I don’t mean an elected official saying how “important the Bills are to Buffalo.” That’s been said by every politician since Mr. Wilson exceeded the average life expectancy of a male (roughly age 81). Leadership means putting aside differences, working with people who rival you and figuring out a combination of private and public interests that will back the stadium. This is not a small task, and no one should reduce it to some kind of easy task where people just get to the end and it wraps up nicely like an episode of GI Joe, circa 1985. It’s more like Doctor Who: messy, people’s careers at risks, and a whole lot of nasty emails will be sent to the Buffalo News, Rochester D&C and every other news printing establishment in Western NY, including SUNY Buffalo’s Spectrum. The only thing similar to a GI Joe episode will be that knowing will be half the battle, and the other half will be money. I don’t think either side will have yet developed appropriately Bills-colored red and blue lasers.
So let’s assume that a man or woman with gigabucks buys the Bills and wants to keep the team in Western NY (I see you, Tom Golisano). Let’s also assume that the Bills must have a new stadium deal intact, or said owner will have the right to move the team to a locale of his or her choosing.
Sidebar #1: Donn Esmonde couldn’t be more wrong about a lack of wealth unable to keep the Bills. Yes, Buffalo is seeing some hard times, but this doesn’t mean it has no wealth to be had. And frankly his claim of no Fortune 500 companies in the region is just plain bogus. Ingram Micro has a major facility in the region. GM, Verizon, Time Warner Cable and Yahoo! are tech giants in the Fortune 500 with significant investments in the region. Kraft Foods has a plant as well, near Rochester. I respect Mr. Esmonde as a columnist and social commenter, but he should stay away from economic commentary until he understands how multinational firms and macroeconomics actually work.
Sidebar #2: Los Angeles is a lousy football town on the professional level. It’s got USC football, UCLA football, basketball (2 teams – and even the Clippers are good, when the heck did that happen?), soccer (or football to the rest of the world outside of Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand), and of course, it’s Hollywood. That means that LA couldn’t give a rat’s rear about professional football. I am much more concerned about a move to Toronto, San Antonio or even London than LA. LA is a great TV market, but it’s not a great football TV market. It’s too saturated with venues for anything and everything else. The chances of the NFL successfully re-animating an LA franchise, other than maybe the St. Louis Rams (who have historic ties to the area) are about as likely as the Republican Party marching to Simi Valley and reanimating President Reagan, this Onion video notwithstanding.
So given the assumptions before my LA sidebar, we have to look at the following for a stadium: cost, accessibility by all modes of transport, market dynamics, and desirability of location. Each mentioned locale has its possibilities and strengths. They are all towns in Bills nation that have many loyal Bills fans, and each would certainly offer all they could.
Batavia, NY (Genesee County):
Advantages: Located roughly halfway between Rochester and Buffalo, Batavia is a small city with easy access to Interstate 90. A half hour east of Buffalo would make it a fairly easy drive for most Buffalonians and Rochesterians. It’s a nice compromise area and there’s develop-able land near Interstate 90. Having a large swath of land to develop in mostly rural Genesee County gives the franchise a tabula rasa to work with. A stadium could be easily located in any large farm or series of fields that could be bought at a relatively inexpensive per acre value.
Disadvantages: Batavia is a small city, and while there are some hotel accommodations and access to public transportation, it is very limited. Furthermore, the massive level of power, water, and sewer systems build-out would simply be a chore for a city not used to that level of output. This also wouldn’t add any ease to the Southern Ontario market, which is growing in importance. As there is limited access to mass transit, charter buses would travel further, except from Rochester. There is also no other use for a large stadium other than for Bills games. Simply put, Batavia has no other major draws. Batavia has approximately 15,000 residents and while its most famous export is likely Hershey’s Ice Cream (no relation to the Chocolate bars), I can’t see it importing the Bills. It’s simply too heavy a lift to have that massive level of build-out that cannot be sustained. Or, to put it another way: a typical home game would literally quintuple the size of the city in people.
Orchard Park, NY (near present location, Erie County, NY):
We’ve all been there as Bills fans. My first game was 1981, Buffalo versus Washington, and we stayed at a hotel rather than drive from my hometown of Pittsford, NY. Even my mother, who is no fan of football, went to the game. Mind you, this was late November in Orchard Park. The game took place in a snowstorm. Mom never went again, but I give her props for sticking it out. For those of you scoring at home 33 years ago: Buffalo 21, Washington 14.
Advantages: Orchard Park is a pleasant suburb, and most of the time, it’s a commercial center for middle class Buffalo. Of course, rising from nowhere, between Southwestern, Abbot, California, and Tim Russert Highway stands Ralph Wilson Stadium and its adjoining field house. There is ample access to highways, though lack of direct interstate access is a hindrance when 70,000+ of your best friends all try to leave at the same time. In addition, there is a charter bus and regular NFTA bus service available along Route 14. Orchard Park is generally considered a safe community with a good reputation and all of the infrastructure to handle the inflow and outflow of fans is already there. A potential new stadium nearer the lake shore in Hamburg (with even more winds – get your anemometer out, kiddies!) along Route 5 would add a nice visually appealing area, and direct access to Amtrak. A private train could theoretically lease track and run to this new stadium from downtown Buffalo. Ten years ago, this isn’t much of a consideration, but with gas prices as they are, and the desire for parking away from the site and taking some form of mass transit in, this might be a distinct advantage.
Disadvantages: Well, aside of the obvious need to rename yet another portion of a road for Tim Russert, this doesn’t address the lack of a “sexy” factor. In modern economics, it’s not just utility, it’s the look, feel, and fun of a stadium experience often in concert with other venues. Cleveland, for example, has access to Progressive Field, the “Rock n Roll” Hall of Fame and the lake shore. I use quotes because a music Hall of Fame with Madonna in it, and not Motley Crue has nothing to do with Rock n Roll and should immediately rename itself the Pop Music Hall of Fame and/or fold up shop. Cleveland and Buffalo aren’t really great destinations in national eyes, which is a shame because both cities offer a lot. It might sound shallow, but going to a football game is no longer about the game itself. It’s about coming into a town, enjoying local cuisine, taking in museums and architecture (which Buffalo offers in abundance) and staying for the game, if you are from out of town. Many people who are Bills fans come in for the weekend and hope to have alternate forms of entertainment for themselves, their kids or spouses. Simply speaking, Orchard Park doesn’t offer the broad array of entertainment that might make it a better a locale. In addition, it still doesn’t add any advantage to Southern Ontario in terms of travel distance. A new stadium in the Orchard Park area is feasible, but it really doesn’t address a number of issues that impact other revenue streams. Without these connecting streams of revenue, the Bills’ long term future in Buffalo would be cloudy at best.
The City of Buffalo (Western Erie County)
Advantages: Despite popular perception, there is plenty to do in Buffalo before and after 5 PM. There are a number of restaurants and the casino. Of course, the Anchor Bar is legendary for its wings. There’s Shea’s Performing Arts Center as well. During the day, or the Saturday before, there’s a number of cultural institutions – particularly the Albright-Knox Gallery or the Buffalo Museum of Science for family-friendly time. Buffalo has an incredibly wonderful architectural heritage. Any drive along Delaware Avenue or Nottingham Terrace near Buffalo State College will demonstrate the beauty of Buffalo’s buildings and grounds. The nearby Buffalo Zoo is a great way to spend a sunny afternoon. One of my favorite Buffalo gems is the Naval and Military Park where I once spent an overnight as a young Boy Scout, and have visited a few times since. In other words, whether you seek food, fun or both, Buffalo offers plenty to do. The reputation as a “dumpy place” is simply undeserved. Yes, there are areas of deep poverty in Buffalo, but that’s true with many aging industrial areas. It doesn’t change the beauty of what once was, as long as some of that beauty remains preserved. In addition, electricity, water, sewer and other functions are built out and already capable. In fact, a new stadium downtown might bring some much needed efficiency to the grid – providing paid-for upgrades to the existing infrastructure that exists above and below ground. Stadiums often pay for updated engineering, and an older city like Buffalo could realize long-term savings through a stadium, depending on how wisely it is financed. There is plenty of transportation to access, and a subway/rail extension might be had at a new stadium site.
Disadvantages: The biggest problem is where to locate it in the city limits. Similar to reclaiming land for the Peace Bridge along Busti Avenue, Buffalo’s fractious politics are a major hindrance. Say what you will about the deceased Jimmy Griffin, but he was a “get things done” kind of guy. The mayors since are known for delays far more than action. Do you redevelop a struggling neighborhood, do you locate downtown, do you utilize open space along the river corridor, or raze a whole neighborhood? Do you consider the environmental clean up necessary if there is brownfield redevelopment necessary? Do you have rail access or highway access? What transportation do you emphasize? The real question is: Will the city of Buffalo put politics aside and actually, if selected by the newly active stadium committee, help redevelop the city in a positive, proactive way? Any lengthy delays by the government of the city could jeopardize the stadium. This author is skeptical of Buffalo being capable of delivering.
Niagara Falls, NY (Southwestern Niagara County):
Advantages: The favored location for a new stadium from a favorite Buffalonian, Jim Kelly (Get Well, Jim). Niagara Falls, NY doesn’t have the glamour and glitz of its Canadian twin. It’s a declining manufacturing city with once great aluminum, cereal and other plants of a bygone era long closed or a shell of themselves. That said, Niagara Falls has outstanding location, access to highway, rail, and airports, and absolutely could redevelop blighted areas. There are a number of golf courses that could potentially become sites, should the owner decide to sell. This might include a municipal course located west of the I-190.
A question that will have to be asked is what economic value a stadium has, including loss of income and resultant sales and income taxes, that has 8 games per season as opposed to a golf course usable for 7 months a year? I am not advocating decommissioning any golf courses – I love golfing – but there’s going to be the question of salability. With the availability of cheap nearby power (which would likely extend to all of the areas mentioned) and extensive infrastructure in place, plus opportunities for other entertainment from casinos to the Falls themselves, Niagara Falls has much of what WNY could offer in terms of entertainment. It’s only 25 minutes from Buffalo, and has its own airport. In addition, Canadian fans would find it very easy to access, while Rochester would see little difference. Specifically the area near the exit for NYS Route 182 from I-190 holds a great deal of promise, in my opinion. It’s not hard to get to, has some promise of open space, and is near rail, bus and other connections.
Disadvantages: While the immediate waterfront area remains a tourist destination with plenty to do, Niagara Falls, NY is perhaps far more known as the site of Love Canal, one of the first Superfund sites from the leftovers of Occidental Chemical Company. Niagara County has a high degree of cleanup sites that will have to be addressed in any plans. While testing and even cleanup are not expensive in the grand scheme of a billion dollar stadium, they could delay the project. Delays could result in an unsuccessful project. Further, siting may take longer – similar to Buffalo. While I suspect there’s less political work to be done for Niagara Falls, siting will be a challenge. In addition, Niagara Falls, like Orchard Park, is relatively far from downtown Buffalo. This isn’t a deal-breaker in this case, as there is much to do in Niagara Falls. Also, the presence of a toll highway, the I-190 on Grand Island, would also create some degree of potential delays at outbound stadium traffic, but this is fairly minor. There’s a lot to like here.
With all that, I propose a compromise location:
Tonawanda, NY (Northwestern Erie County)
Advantages: Location, location, location. Tonawanda is a classic struggling first-ring suburb that remains a phenomenon in many older cities. The first ring suburb became successful because it was spread out and offered companies broad land to fulfill newer plant designs that were less often “tall” and more often “wide.” This form of suburban development served well enough for 40 years, but in the past 20-30 years, spread patterns have begun to retrench in favor of economic cores. Manufacturers moved to these suburbs, and then manufacturing began its decline starting in 1975. As manufacturing began a precipitous decline as a share of American employment from 1975 to 1994, Buffalo saw massive economic losses. Tonawanda was no different than the rest of Buffalo’s metropolitan area. Plants that once hummed were shut down, companies that once grew were stagnant or retrenched. There is much in the way of potentially develop-able space, particularly north of Sheridan Rd. along the river, just Southeast of Isle View County Park. This area has easy access to the 190, 290, rail and it’s near the waterfront, which could be a nice way to link a proposed linear park along the Niagara River with the stadium. This area is also easily accessible from Rochester, Canada and Buffalo. In short, it has geographic, access and development advantages. It can serve all three major markets that attend Bills games.
Disadvantages: Ultimately, like any other suburban location, it’s a challenge to make the taxes and infrastructure work. Unlike downtown, there’s no distinct draw to Tonawanda other than its location and its accessibility. This is not to disrespect the town – I lived there for a year on Raintree Island and its pleasant, safe and near just about everything. The City of Tonawanda, for years considered a “dump,” has made a nice comeback recently in its downtown. However, unlike a downtown location or one in Niagara Falls, there’s no massive family entertainment nearby, although Martin’s Fantasy Island is not too far distant. In other words, each destination in Buffalo would require an increase in access on game weekends in transport infrastructure, including added trains, a new exit for ease of car access and increased bus service to the area on local roads. People will want to be able to come in and out, and there must be areas set aside for tailgating and the classic feel of the Ralph as we know it. Overall, Tonawanda has the best ratio of advantage to disadvantage.
This is just the beginning of the process. I hope the stadium committee is thorough, dedicated and balanced. Any of the communities above would do their best for the Bills. If the question is purely one of taking advantage of our geographic advantages, along the river in Tonawanda will maximize all of our markets and create the best long term locale for all Bills fans.