ORCHARD PARK, NY — Much like the Buffalo Bills themselves, who have lost four straight Super Bowls, there’s no doubt the team’s new $1.4 billion stadium proposal has its doubters.
The stadium, which will be built across from the Bills’ current home in this Buffalo suburb, is set to receive the most generous public funds for a professional football facility, an extension of a decades-long trend in which locals and State governments pay a lot of money to keep or attract for-profit and private sports franchises.
Critics have already trashed the deal — which will cost the state $600 million and Erie County an additional $250 million — as a blatant example of corporate welfare. Others see it as a blatant example of electoral largesse, orchestrated by a governor, Kathy Hochul, whose good faith in the upstate does not necessarily translate into support downstate, where elections in New York are won and lost.
But for die-hard fans at places like the Big Tree Inn, a bar and restaurant in Hail Mary of the Bills’ current home, Highmark Stadium, there’s little debate about whether taxpayers’ money will be well spent, especially in an age when NFL teams are billion-dollar corporations and indisputable sources of civic pride.
“You never want to lose the team,” said Jeff Rapini, 47, a cook in the Big Tree’s convivial kitchen. “And I’m one of those taxpayers who don’t care.”
Local elected officials echo that, saying the price of the new stadium is best viewed as the cost of keeping Buffalo a big league city.
“The real benefit is that we keep our team and we avoid the psychological blow of losing the Buffalo Bills and the impact that has on Buffalo’s image around the world,” Mark Poloncarz said., the Erie County Executive, which includes Buffalo. “If people know anything about Buffalo, NY, it’s Buffalo Wings, it snows here in the winter, and the Buffalo Bills.”
Buffalo’s insecurity about losing the Bills has only grown as big cities have lost their franchises, often lured by flashy new stadiums like SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif., which has was built at a cost of over $5 billion and now hosts a pair of teams that were drawn to the Los Angeles area from St. Louis and San Diego.
State funding for the Bills deal was finalized in early April when Albany lawmakers agreed to a record $220 billion budget. The deal still needs to be approved by the Erie County Legislature by September and will ensure the bills stay in Buffalo for the next three decades, according to Ms. Hochul, a native of the area.
“My children’s children – my grandchildren – will be able to enjoy football,” Ms Hochul said when the deal was announced in late March.
The Hochul administration also argued that the stadium will be a multi-purpose facility and that the economic and fiscal benefits will eventually exceed the $850 million in public funds spent there, in addition to the more immediate creation of thousands of jobs. unions for its construction. .
The agreement to pay from the public purse nevertheless drew strong criticism from columnists and politicians, and apparently left Ms. Hochul — a first-term Democrat who became governor in August after former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo unexpectedly resigned — open to accusations of using budget money to raise his chances of winning a full term in November.
The Public Interest Research Group of New York, a good government group, also pointed to a potential conflict: Ms Hochul’s husband, William, a former American lawyer in Buffalo, now works at a gambling and Hospitality, Delaware North, which has a dealership dealing with bills.
“Whatever one thinks of New Yorkers shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars for a new sports stadium owned by billionaires, there is at least the appearance of a conflict,” said Blair Horner, director group executive.
After the death of the team’s founder and original owner, Ralph Wilson, the Bills were purchased in 2014 by Terry Pegula, a natural gas billionaire who also owns the Buffalo Sabers hockey team, and his wife, Kim , who is president of the Bills. .
For its part, the team said the Highmark Stadium – which is pushing 50 – needed costly repairs, particularly to its upper tier, even as its lease approached its expiry date, set for next year. .
“Extending the current stadium lease was simply not an option,” said Pegula Sports spokesman Jim Wilkinson. “Spending over a billion dollars to renovate an outdated stadium was also not an option. But relocation could have been a very real option. ”
Shortly after announcing the deal, Ms. Hochul was able to cover some of the state’s costs through a workaround: using more than $400 million from a recent payment from the Seneca Nation, a Native American tribe. from western New York who had been engaged for years. -former casino revenue dispute.
But even that maneuver was met with anger — from the Senecas, who blasted the deal as “the latest chapter in New York’s long history of mistreatment and profiteering of Indigenous peoples.”
“It’s no surprise to the Seneca Nation that the governor thinks his actions should be applauded as progress,” said nation president Matthew Pagels. “It’s the Albany way.”
Such invective, however, contrasts sharply with the general relief apparently felt in Buffalo, which has recently seen an increase in economic investment and population after years of declining fortunes.
Similarly, the Bills have also been revived, coming within 13 seconds of a second straight trip to a conference championship game in January.
Team paraphernalia is impossible to miss, with Bills flags and red-white-blue jerseys seen across town. A downtown nightlife district known as Allentown was informally renamed for star quarterback Josh Allentown.
The Bills have been in Buffalo since 1960, and the city is one of the smallest to have an NFL franchise – although the team has proven to be the most successful associated with New York in recent years, with the Giants and Jets being both underperforming. (and playing, it should be noted, in New Jersey).
The new stadium will be owned by the state, which will also be responsible for providing more than $100 million for its upkeep. For Erie County, the $250 million to be spent on the stadium will be raised through one of the largest bond offerings in county history, though County Comptroller Kevin Hardwick said that this would most likely be offset by approximately $75 million in cash from a 2021 budget surplus.
Economists have long been skeptical of the effects of new stadiums on civic outcomes, a view detailed in a lengthy analysis released this year that looked at decades of such deals.
The three authors of the article – all economists – concluded that “the large subsidies generally devoted to the construction of professional sports venues are not justified as valid public investments”.
Helen Drew, who teaches sports law at the University at Buffalo, said there’s no way to put an exact dollar value on the value of the project, especially when it comes to the positive attention it gets. a good Bills team can bring. She also noted that cities like Buffalo have long invested in civic auditoriums and other civic works to encourage development.
“You can object to it,” she said, “but it’s a reality that cities like this have to pay to be competitive.”
April NM Baskin, the County Legislative Speaker, is very hopeful that one element of the deal – calling on all parties to ensure the deal benefits “historically underserved communities” in Erie County – could be transformational for certain areas of Ox.
“It’s a unique opportunity to say, ‘Look at this huge public dollar investment that we’re putting into the stadium – what are we going to do for the public?'” Ms. Baskin, a Democrat, said, adding that the jobs in construction were also an undeniable selling point.
Some of the deal’s harshest criticism has come from downstate lawmakers, especially young progressives in the Democratic Party who frown on the use of public money for private businesses, in especially for the benefit of wealthy landowners like the Pegulas.
Shortly after the budget was passed, Jumaane Williams, a New York City public defender and Ms. Hochul’s challenger in the Democratic primary in June, called it a “massive giveaway.”
Yet Mr Williams tried to draw the line between criticism of the deal and appreciation of the bills.
“I know there are intangible benefits to a new Buffalo Bills stadium — just like there are intangible benefits to being a Bills fan,” he wrote in an op-ed for The Times Union of Albany. “I know keeping the Bills in Buffalo is essential and at least some of the funding for the stadium will be publicly funded. At the same time, I think we can spend a better billion on Buffalo.
Patrick Bush, 55, a fan and resident of Orchard Park, said it was time for residents of the New York area – where several stadiums and arenas have been built with public funds – to help the second-largest city of State.
“Our money travels downstate as well as theirs upstate,” he said, adding, “We send them our money. They should send their money to us.
Ken Belson contributed reporting.