Q&A: Stadium entrepreneur George Hasiotis

George Hasiotis is one of Western New York’s most interesting – and plain spoken – economic thinkers.

He’s been in the news of late spearheading a proposal to build a multi-purpose sports and entertainment complex on the Outer Harbor that would house the Buffalo Bills. But his economic development credentials go well beyond the stadium proposal.

He’s an expert on cross-border trade issues and co-founder of the Economic Club of Canada. He’s worked as a public affairs consultant for 20 years advising clients on international business matters. Locally, he’s an owner of Antoinette’s On The Hill Inc., whose holdings include the popular Antoinette’s Sweets in West Seneca.

Hasiotis, 59, has been active in Democratic Party circles and served as a commissioner on the Erie County Water Authority from 1996-2000.

He earned an undergraduate degree in government from Bowdoin College and a masters in economic from the New School of Social Research.

Hasiotis was interviewed March 11 by Investigative Post Editor Jim Heaney. A 4 minute, 29 second video clip featuring interview highlights is posted above. The full 20 minute, 35 second interview is posted deeper in the transcript, which has been edited lightly for clarity.

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Heaney: Let’s talk a little bit about the global issues surrounding the stadium and then talk a little bit about your particular proposal. As a community, we’ve got ten years left on a lease on Ralph Wilson Stadium. What’s the community debate that needs to take place, the due diligence? How many years do we have to get through that part of it?

Hasiotis: Well, ten years is a real short time because it takes seven or eight years to build a new facility, which means it would take ten years for us to get the SuperBowl here, which is what we’re hoping to do in our plan.

Heaney: So, we’re looking at two or three years to sort through the issues?

Hasiotis: Not even. I think you have to start today. It’s not the kind of thing where you put a committee together or a commission together, because in this community that leads to a quagmire and …

Heaney: Paralysis …

Hasiotis: Paralysis and litigation. The legacy of the old failed Cottrell Scheme cost us far too much.

The new model for progressive communities is that you don’t want to put tax money into … a single-sport facility.

Heaney: What are the issues from your perspective that we as a community need to be grappling with?

Hasiotis: Well, it’s a very simple issue. The first fundamental issue is: What do we want to do with our future?

Our proposal is to create jobs through construction, but it’s also for the community to basically make a decision. If you want to keep professional football here, you have to stand up and tell the NFL you would do that. The way you do that is with a new facility, because you can’t keep franchises with antiquated facilities. The actions of the NFL over the last year or so, even up until today, they’re not really biting on the renovation of this. They don’t really bite on the antiquated facilities.

What they’re saying is, “If you, as a community, or you, as New York State, want to keep professional football here in Western New York, someone better step up and build something right now because waiting two or three years means that you’re past the ten year point.”

Heaney: Beyond, ‘Do you want to keep a team or not?’, what are the issues? I would think things like; ‘What type of facility?’ ‘Single purpose versus multi-purpose?’ ‘Is it domed?’ ‘Is it open air?’ ‘Is it publically financed?’ ‘Is it privately financed?’ ‘Where is it located?’ Are those the big global issues?

Hasiotis: Yes, those are the big issues and those are the key points. The new model for progressive communities is that you don’t want to put tax money into building a stranded, dead-end cost, single-sport facility.

Heaney: Kind of like the stadium we’ve got now?

Hasiotis: Like the stadium we’ve got now and, also, there’s a new stadium going up in Minneapolis, St. Paul which, unfortunately, follows that model. However, the new models are Indianapolis and what Oakland’s trying to do with their planning now.

We’re working with the most renowned development and architecture planning firm as part of our team. HKS Architects of Dallas did the Dallas Cowboy’s stadium. They did Indianapolis. They’re working with Oakland and they work with the NFL on a day-to-day basis. The new model is the economic model of Indianapolis which means that you create a venue which is multi-sport, multi-event and entertainment, where football becomes a small fraction of your revenue and you get a better return.

Our proposal is for private financing. So, up until now, and in the foreseeable future, there would be no tax money expended on developing our proposal. The real benefit is jobs because there is no other economic engine that anyone has put on the table, whether it’s a Billion for Buffalo from the state of New York, or piecemeal investments. This really, unfortunately, would be a silver bullet. It’s not good to call something a silver bullet?

Heaney: Well, in this economy, are there really silver bullets anymore?

Hasiotis: I think there really are because this is a partnership between the National Football League and the American Federation of Labor, the NFL-AFL. But we have unanimous support from the Buildings Trade Council and the Buildings Trade Unions, not just in Buffalo but in New York and in Washington. They have committed and stepped up saying that they’re going to invest because if we’re going to be spending $800 million to $900 million just on payroll, as we build out this facility, that’s an incredible economic stimulus, and the multiplier for this community is phenomenal.

Heaney: Let’s talk a little bit in terms of your proposal. How many dollars are we talking? How much is private versus public? What’s in the facility besides a football stadium? You talk about football being a small piece of it, so paint me a picture in terms of what this project would look like.

Hasiotis: Well, it’s really an economic model, which is not unlike a commercial retail mall. There are multiple anchors, multiple activities, multiple stores.

Heaney: The big anchors and the big activities would be what?

Hasiotis: Well, one is football, but that’s only about 600,000 visitors a year.

The other would be the North American Museum of Sports and Competition that would be run and developed by the Strong of Rochester, as part of their program. We have a great working relationship and they’ve committed to working with us and building out a facility that’s at least 150,000 square feet. We anticipate that they would generate another 600,000.

Beyond that, we have other events, such as soccer, basketball, and, downstream, we would have a SuperBowl, which would bring in phenomenal traffic and about another half-billion dollars in revenue for the region. In year three, after we finish this complex, we have all of those sporting events. We have other museums and other cultural events. We’ve talked to the Greater Buffalo Hall of Fame for music, the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame and the Greater Buffalo Music Hall of Fame. There’s a lot of potential for bringing all of this and creating energy right on the waterfront, and integrating downtown.

Heaney: We’re talking open-air?

Hasiotis: No, it has to be a closed environment because it will also be part of our convention and conference facility.

Heaney: So, it’s a dome rather than a retractable?

Hasiotis: It’s a retractable roof with 72,000 seats.

The stewards of our public land have not done anything for half a century. It’s time to move ahead and to do it with a private sector mentality and perspective.

Heaney: This proposal has not been greeted with open arms by much of the power structure in town. I think the common criticism is, ‘Not the best use of valuable real estate on the waterfront, and limited access.’ You’ve got the Skyway and Fuhrman, and there’s the ingress, egress. A lot of people you presumably want to have on your side are poo-pooing the thing. What do you make of the opposition at this point?

Hasiotis: I’d like to use your words. It’s a poo-poo kind of place. It sat there for 50 years. They certainly haven’t done anything with it. They keep changing their minds.

Heaney: You mean the Outer Harbor?

Hasiotis: I mean the Outer Harbor site. If you look at the Inner Harbor, it’s over $150 million that’s been spent with no real measureable job creation. They’ve done some concerts down there, so they’re creating a lot of traffic but no one ever talked about “how do we control the traffic?” How do we deal with the traffic flow or the congestion? They just did it.

So, you have to compare this to a professional design and professional build. One of the objectives in doing due diligence on a project like this is securing the site, getting approval from the NFL, and then coming back with a very detailed traffic, parking environment and economic studies. And then you move on, and quite frankly, that doesn’t cost the taxpayer a penny. Quite frankly, it’s not the business-like way this community has operated for over 50 years.

If we’re getting push back, it’s coming from those people who don’t like the idea that new energy, new capital, new ideas, and probably the best development team in the world, is promoting this.

Heaney: What’s the cost on this project?

Hasiotis: It’s about $1.5 billion.

Heaney: How much of that comes from public versus private sources?

Hasiotis: The first billion will come from us, and we have most of the commitments in line for that. Additionally, what would be required, as would be required for any site, would be site prep, infrastructure roads, bridges, dealing with some of the things that have been identified by the detailed studies on traffic and parking and environment. We already have baseline numbers for that.

We have significant parking available already. More than Dallas has. More than Indianapolis has. There will be over 5,000 parking spaces on-site.

Let me also say, the site will be a park, and it will be a better park than even Olmsted could envision because it will be an integrative experience, complete and total public access for passive and active recreation, in an environment that’s not only green, but is enhanced, clean and safe with amenities and free and open to the public, with set-backs that don’t, in any way, obstruct people from doing what they want to do on the existing pathways. So, it really surpasses the environmental expectations and it’ll be the most advanced 21st century LEED certified structure of its kind in the country.

Heaney: Would the public investment go beyond infrastructure-type improvements?

Hasiotis: No, it wouldn’t.

Heaney: So, building the actual facility would be completely on the private sector?

Hasiotis: Yes, and because of the economic model, the return on the investment will be significant enough to entice private investors. The return on investment timetable and formula will be far better than the public sector government receives from other types of bonding endeavors that it gets into.

Heaney: One final question before we move on and talk about Canada: The process right now – I take it you’re looking for an option?

Hasiotis: We’d like a land option so that we can go right to the NFL, get a green light, come back and provide that detailed information to the community. Now let me just say that we’ve also had a unanimous resolution of support and endorsement of proceeding down this path from the Buffalo Common Council. We’ve been working very closely with county legislators and with the state Assembly, and Senate delegation. We’ve talked to the governor and the lieutenant governor. So, we’ve made a lot of progress since we unveiled this on October 23 and we’re picking up a lot of support.

Heaney: Are you encouraged or not? Because, again, the reaction from the political community – the Common Council notwithstanding – reaction from folks like Brian Higgins, a lot of people, would lead one to believe that this is pretty much DOA.

Hasiotis: No, it’s really changed a lot. Brian Higgins, six months ago, was saying there would never be a new downtown stadium. Now he’s saying there has to be a look at a new downtown stadium. Everyone has turned around, even Mark Poloncarz. They don’t say it’s going to be this one because this isn’t their baby, but that’ll change.

There’s nothing proprietary about public land and, unfortunately, the stewards of our public land have not done anything for half a century. It’s time to move ahead and to do it with a private sector mentality and perspective. I don’t think anybody can compete with the resources and proposal we’ve put on the table, and what we bring in terms of an overall experience. It isn’t just a stranded, one-dimensional football stadium.

Heaney: Let’s move on and talk about the economic opportunity. We’re across the Peace Bridge, across the Rainbow Bridge, from one of the larger economies in the world – Ontario. We talked a little bit off camera about what is happening and not happening. You are of the opinion that not nearly enough is happening for Western New York and New York State, in general. What is the opportunity? And where are we falling short?

Hasiotis: In the 11 or 12 years that I’ve been involved with the Canadian economy, with the Economic Club of Canada and the Economic Club of Toronto, much has changed. A lot of it is the resource base and the capital accumulation that exists in Canada because of their resource wealth and the new trade relationship and exchange rate between the Canadian and the U.S. dollar. That’s made it much more affordable for Canadian capital, venture capital, banks, insurance companies and others to buy assets in the U.S.

Canadians are very comfortable going to places that they understand. They’re comfortable investing in Florida, Arizona, Ellicottville, and in Buffalo. What makes sense is for us to corral that, engage that, not just with private sector initiatives but also government to government. It really is the role and function of government, state and federal government. I know from my own experience that the federal government, through the Trade Office of the Canadian Consulate in Toronto, as well as the U.S. Embassy, does a lot. But New York has not taken advantage of that.

Heaney: And let me, for our viewers, paint a broader picture here. We’ve got a situation where Toronto is one of the financial powers of the world. Since the end of World War II it’s become this huge economic powerhouse. Investment, as somebody from the Canadian government once told me, has just been rolling down the Queen Elizabeth Highway from Toronto to Hamilton, to St. Catherines, to Niagara Falls, and most of that stops dead at the border.

I had one Canadian official tell me years ago, “The problem with you people in Buffalo is you keep looking east to Albany for handouts rather than looking north to Toronto for investment. When are you people going to wake up and take advantage of the investment opportunities that present themselves because of your closeness to Toronto?”

So, that’s what I’m talking about. To what degree are we capturing the opportunity? Are we getting ten percent of what we could be getting? Are we getting 50 percent? How much are we leaving on the table?

Hasiotis: We’re leaving three-quarters on the table.

This town has an inward approach to things and it really has to open up and look out.

Heaney: And what kind of business activity could we be seeing here?

Hasiotis: We take a baseline, which is what we already have, which is Canadian joint-ventures with New York companies or economic activities in the state of New York and Western New York – that’s our baseline. And then we try to figure out how we can maximize, or get additional development or joint-venture activities from there, by enticing Canadian capital to come in, and seeing what they need to get them to come in. But, those are very targeted sectors.

We have the existing activities which tend to be engineering, biotech, trade related, some basic raw materials and, also, intellectual capital because there’s a lot of existing asset base already with joint ventures in academia and research.

Beyond that, if we take this proposal for building a downtown, multi-facetted entertainment sports complex, that kind of project would entice, as an example, Canadian venture capital participation in building out real estate. This would engender other types of joint ventures and Canadian capital – private Canadian dollars being available to entrepaneurs here in Western New York, possibly joint ventures with the state to doing other things. Other than real estate, you’re looking at biotech. You’re looking at medicine and basic provision of diagnostic and treatment …

Heaney: There’s a bit of that happening at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus right now. The governor’s Billion To Buffalo program doesn’t really target Canada. What do you make of that? Is there an opportunity being lost?

Hasiotis: It’s a huge opportunity being lost and is being discussed a little bit right now. But you and I have been talking about that for over five years. There’s a comparative advantage for us to provide more diagnostic and treatment medical services to Canada because they can’t afford to, and they will not commit the capital dollars, to build out the kind of diagnostic treatment technology that they need in Ontario. It’s cheaper for them to contract with Buffalo or Cleveland or Detroit.

Heaney: So, that work is outsourced, so to speak?

Hasiotis: Yes, and we have to seize on that opportunity, which is to the benefit of private, as well as public-sector, interests here in Buffalo; private medical groups as well as public hospitals like ECMC.

Empire State Development has failed. They know what they have to do, but they don’t have the desire or the follow through or the vision to do it.

Heaney: So, it sounds like at levels of both private sector and a government level, the leadership here is really not seizing the opportunity.

Hasiotis: No, because they never look that way. We always think of going there for entertainment and they think of coming here for entertainment and travel and retail. We have to facilitate that.

Heaney: The governor’s talking about spending a lot of public dollars in Buffalo on rejuvenating the local economy. You’re saying that if you play your cards right, you can get a lot of money out of Toronto that is private-sector investment rather than public-sector subsidy. So, what does the public or private sector leadership in this town need to do to get things moving?

Hasiotis: I think this town has an inward approach to things and it really has to open up and look out.

Heaney: In terms of concrete steps?

Hasiotis: They have to change the way they do business. Empire State Development has failed. They know what the baseline numbers are. They know what they have to do, but they don’t have the desire or the follow through or the vision to do it. We’ve tried many times to get them to Toronto, to connect them. But, it’s been five or six gubernatorial administrations in New York, and you just can’t get a New York governor or lieutenant governor or trade czar to go there.

Heaney: What about a mayor or county executive?

Hasiotis: I’ve tried that, too.

Heaney: With the current folks, as well?

Hasiotis: Not with the current folks, but with all the prior administrations.

Heaney: And there’s just a reluctance to wander much beyond Erie County borders?

Hasiotis: They don’t understand it. They just don’t understand it. They’re not comfortable. But we’ve had Arnold Schwarzenegger. We’ve had five state governors. We’ve had mayors from Atlanta, everywhere else, and those states do it. They get it.

Heaney: So, they get it and they get investment as a result?

Hasiotis: Yes. Part of it is that New York is always looking toward Wall Street. So, there’s myopia in Albany not to look this way. But, there’s no excuse for Buffalo. We know it’s there.