The Buffalo Bills have long been synonymous with Western New York and this connection has become more apparent as social media and sports coverage has grown. Currently, not a week goes by without a video surfacing of a Buffalo Bills fan jumping through a table or Chris Boomer of ESPN saying “No one circles the wagons like the Buffalo Bills.” However, the NFL is a business and Buffalo is one of the smaller markets with a professional team. Within the last decade, a new trend has developed within professional sports to build state of the art stadiums in an attempt to increase revenue. The Cowboys, Falcons, Chargers, and Rams have all either recently entered a new stadium or broken ground on building a new one. Building a new stadium is a complex project which requires due diligence covering the intersection of zoning laws, environmental requirements, entertainment, sports, and potentially transformative impacts on the community.
This past summer at Jim Kelly’s annual golf tournament, Roger Goodell alluded to the Bills’ need for a new stadium. Simply put, he believes a new stadium is essential to the stability of a franchise and elaborated on the point by stating, “I want to make sure this franchise remains competitive and stable.” Although this message seems harmless, it is clearly a nudge designed to get the Bills to follow the lead of other teams which have substantially increased revenue by building state of the art stadiums. However, this comes as no surprise to the Pegulas, who reportedly bought the team in 2014 with the intention of building a new stadium.
Building new stadiums downtown is a popular trend as it brings in more revenue for owners and the NFL as a whole, while also creating buzz for the NFL. Specifically, owners desire new stadiums with more luxury suites, because these suites generate significant revenue which does not have to be shared with other teams in the league. Considering most new stadiums are publicly funded by tax dollars, the Buffalo community must ensure it receives significant benefits from a new stadium, rather than just making NFL owners more money.
Clearly, NFL stadiums are expensive, as their price exceeds $1 billion dollars, however a 2014 report by AECOM Technical Services projected it would cost roughly $540 million for the next series of renovations that New Era Field requires. As a result, the Pegulas have begun looking for possible downtown locations to build a new stadium. Currently, the most logical location would be the Cobblestone District, which is located a block east of the Sabres’ arena and within two blocks of HarborCenter and the headquarters of Pegula Sports and Entertainment.
For perspective, the current Bills Stadium, New Era Field, occupies 113 acres of land in Orchard Park, whereas the Cobblestone and Old First Ward provide up to 182 acres of land. However, to utilize the full 182 acres of potential land, existing structures would need to be demolished. Unlike New Era stadium, this location would be a more central location for fans and is in great proximity to the DL&W Terminal and provide access to Metro Rail. Potentially, this would reduce the amount of vehicles needed to attend games. Currently, commercial developers are racing to buy up property in the Cobblestone District with the goal of eventually selling that property at above market value if the Bills commit to building a downtown stadium. Specifically, Ellicott Development and its affiliate companies own 20% of 165 properties in the district, while the Pegulas also own a significant portion of the available properties.
Economists debate over the true economic impact a new downtown stadium brings to the local economy due to the “substitution theory.” Simply put, consumers that spend money on sports events usually offset their use of discretionary income by reducing their spending in other areas. In other words, merely realigning the amount of money spent on leisure activities would not cause a substantial enough economic change to create the need for a multitude of new jobs. However, a significant increase in tourism would bring in consumers from outside the community who would provide an influx of spending, which cannot be rebutted by the substitution theory.
A new stadium could be used for purposes other than Bills games, such as concerts, high school football games, hosting March Madness games, or even hosting a Super Bowl. This would increase the amount of money spent at hotels, restaurants, bars, and local shops. Additionally, the “intangible” benefits of a new stadium such as civic pride and national exposure are not accounted for by the substitution theory. The Pegulas, through their development of Harbor Center and Canalside, have proven that their presence along with the traffic generated from the Sabres and Bills can revitalize the Buffalo economy.
New York law requires local and state government agencies to analyze the environmental impacts as well as social and/or economic factors when considering such projects. Commonly referred to as a “SEQR” review, the proponents of building a new stadium and any New York agency assisting with the project must do their due diligence in meeting these extensive requirements or else risk the entire project. Ultimately, it is likely that the agency will make a conditioned negative declaration, which provides that the stadium project will have environmental impacts that can be mitigated. However, if this analysis is not taken seriously, the review can be challenged, which would be costly and hold up the entire project. Satisfying these requirements would be the final step for a new stadium before construction starts.
There has been no shortage of support from local fans and public officials for a potential downtown stadium project for the Buffalo Bills. Additionally, the NFL has been pushing Bills ownership to build a new stadium. Although costly for tax-payers, a downtown stadium for the Bills actually can be supported by several factors. Considering that renovations for the existing New Era Stadium will cost roughly $540 million, a downtown location provides numerous public transportation opportunities, and is more accessible to expressways, a downtown stadium seems like a likely option for the Pegulas. Simply put, the NFL is pressuring the Bills to build a new stadium and a location downtown is not only possible, but quite feasible and will likely add to revitalization of the Buffalo economy. However one thing is clear: the Buffalo Bills, with or without a new stadium, will have no shortage of support from fans.
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