ORCHARD PARK, NY — Like the Buffalo Bills themselves, who lost four straight Super Bowls, there’s no question the team’s new $1.4 billion stadium proposal has its skeptics.
The stadium, to be built across the street from the Bills’ current home in this Buffalo suburb, is expected to receive the most generous outlay of public funds for a professional football facility, an extension of a decades-old trend. in which local and state governments pay big bucks to maintain or attract privately owned, for-profit sports franchises.
Critics have already slammed the deal, which will cost the state $600 million and Erie County an additional $250 million, as an egregious example of corporate welfare. Others see it as a blatant example of election-year largesse, orchestrated by a governor, Kathy Hochul, whose good faith upstate doesn’t necessarily translate into support downstate, where elections are won and lost in New York.
But for die-hard fans at places like the Big Tree Inn, a bar and restaurant inside Hail Mary of the Bills’ current home, Highmark Stadium, there’s little debate about whether taxpayer money will be well spent, particularly in a time when that NFL teams are multimillion-dollar businesses and indisputable sources of civic pride.
“You never want to lose the team,” said Jeff Rapini, 47, a cook in the Big Tree’s wing kitchen. “And I’m one of those taxpayers who doesn’t care.”
Local elected officials echo that, saying the price of the new stadium is best viewed as the cost of keeping Buffalo a major league city.
“The real benefit is that we keep our team and avoid the psychological blow of losing the Buffalo Bills and the impact it has on Buffalo’s image around the world,” said Mark Poloncarz., the Erie County Executive, which includes Buffalo. “If people know anything about Buffalo, NY, it’s chicken wings, it snows here in the winter, and Buffalo Bills.”
Buffalo’s insecurity over losing the Bills has only increased as larger cities have lost their franchises, often lured by flashy new stadiums like SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, which was built at a cost of more than $5 billion and now houses a couple of teams. who were drawn to the Los Angeles area from St. Louis and San Diego.
State funding of the Bills deal was finalized in early April when lawmakers in Albany agreed to a record $220 billion budget. The deal still needs approval from the Erie County Legislature by September and will ensure the Bills stay in Buffalo for the next three decades, according to Ms. Hochul, who is a native of the area.
“My children’s children, my grandchildren, will be able to enjoy football,” Ms. Hochul said when announcing the deal at the end of March.
The Hochul administration has also argued that the stadium will be a multi-use facility and that the economic and fiscal benefits will eventually exceed the $850 million in public funds being spent on it, in addition to the more immediate creation of thousands of union jobs for His construction. .
The agreement to pay from public coffers has, however, provoked harsh criticism from columnists and politicians, and apparently left Ms. Hochul, a first-term Democrat who became governor in August after the unexpected resignation of former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, exposed to charges of using budget money to improve her chances of winning. a full term in November.
The New York Public Interest Research Group, a good government group, also pointed to a potential conflict: Ms. Hochul’s husband, William, a former federal prosecutor in Buffalo, now works at a gambling and hospitality company, Delaware North , which has a concession to deal with the bills.
“Regardless of what one thinks of the New Yorkers who shelled 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, the group’s executive director.
After the death of team 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 serves as president of the Bills. .
For its part, the team said Highmark Stadium, which is approaching 50 years old, was in need of expensive repairs, particularly on its upper tier, even as its lease approached its expiration date, set for next year.
“Extending the lease on the current stadium simply wasn’t an option,” said Jim Wilkinson, a spokesman for Pegula Sports. “Spending more than 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 settlement, Ms. Hochul was able to defray some of the state’s costs with a workaround: using more than $400 million of a recent payment from the Seneca Nation, a Western New York Native American tribe that had been involved. in a year -old dispute over casino revenue.
But even that move was met with anger by the Seneca, who criticized the deal as “the latest chapter in New York’s long history of mistreatment and exploitation of Native Americans.”
“It is no surprise to the Seneca Nation that the Governor thinks her actions should be applauded as progress,” said Seneca Nation President Matthew Pagels. “That’s the Albany way.”
Yet such invective stands in stark contrast to the general relief apparently being felt in Buffalo, which has recently seen a rebound in economic investment and population after years of falling fortunes.
Similarly, the Bills have also revived, coming within 13 seconds of a second straight trip to a conference championship game in January.
It’s impossible to miss the team paraphernalia, with Bills flags and red, white and blue jerseys seen all over town. A downtown nightlife district known as Allentown has been 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 both poor performance. (and playing, it should be noted, in New Jersey).
The new stadium will be owned by the state, which will also be responsible for contributing more than $100 million for its maintenance. For Erie County, the $250 million to be spent on the stadium will be raised through one of the largest bond offerings in the county’s history, though County Comptroller Kevin Hardwick said it will most likely be make up with about $75 million in cash from a 2021 budget surplus.
Economists have long been skeptical about the effects of new stadiums on civic outcomes, a view outlined in exhaustive detail in a lengthy analysis published this year that looked at decades of such deals.
The three authors of the article, all economists, concluded that “the large subsidies commonly devoted to the construction of professional sports facilities are not justified as worthwhile public investments.”
Helen Drew, who teaches sports law at the University of Buffalo, said there was no way to put an exact monetary value on the value of the project, particularly with regard to the positive attention a good Bills team can bring. She also pointed out that cities like Buffalo had long invested in civic auditoriums and other municipal works to encourage development.
“You can criticize it,” he said, “but it’s a reality that cities like this have to pay to compete.”
April NM Baskin, the Speaker of the County Legislature, has high hopes that one element of the agreement, asking all parties to ensure the agreement benefits “historically underserved communities” in Erie County, could be transformer for some areas of Buffalo.
“It’s a unique opportunity to say, ‘Look at this huge investment of public dollars that we’re putting into the stadium, what are we going to do for the public?'” Ms. Baskin, a Democrat, said, adding that the construction jobs were also an undeniable selling point.
Some of the sharpest criticism of the deal has come from downstate lawmakers, particularly younger progressives in the Democratic Party who are wary of using public money for private business ventures, especially for the benefit of wealthy homeowners like the Pegulas.
Shortly after the budget was passed, Jumaane Williams, a New York City public defender and Hochul’s challenger in June’s Democratic primary, called it “a massive gift.”
Still, Mr. Williams tried to walk the line between criticism of the deal and appreciation for 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 that keeping the Bills in Buffalo is critical and that at least some of the financing for the stadium will come from public sources. At the same time, I think we can spend a billion in Buffalo.”
Patrick Bush, 55, a fan and resident of Orchard Park, said it’s about time residents of the New York City area, where several publicly funded stadiums and arenas have been built, help the second-largest city big state.
“Our money goes upstate just like theirs goes upstate,” he said, adding, “We send our money to them. They should send their money to ours.”
Ken Belson contributed reporting.