Panel split on need for new Bills stadium

A new stadium for the Buffalo Bills would cost $1 billion to construct and require up to $600 million in public infrastructure improvements, an entrepreneur who has proposed building a facility on the Outer Harbor says.

A new Bills stadium was the topic of discussion for a panel of speakers Wednesday during a happy hour discussion at Allen Street Hardware sponsored by Investigative Post.

But do the Bills really need one, especially considering the $130 million in renovations to Ralph Wilson stadium that the team unveiled this past season?

“Absolutely yes,” said George Hasiotis, vice president of the Greater Buffalo Sports & Entertainment Complex, which has proposed building a multipurpose stadium on the Outer Harbor.

The Ralph Wilson stadium “has been written off already,” Hasiotis said, and the NFL could take the franchise away from Buffalo if the Bills don’t significantly upgrade the stadium or build a new one.

Bill Barden, an architect and business development consultant, said the existing stadium has “core structural issues” that were not addressed by the renovations.

On the contrary, Buffalo News columnist Donn Esmonde said, “we have a perfectly good stadium with a shelf life of at least another 30 years.”

Esmonde dismissed the idea that the NFL could move the franchise unless a new stadium is built.

“We don’t have to be suckers for the NFL. We’re in a position to just say no,” he said.

Barden and Hasiotis said that any new stadium would be a “next generation” multipurpose complex that could also be used up to 300 days a year for other events such as college sports and concerts. The additional events would provide an economic boost that the current stadium fails to do, they said.

“We are not just talking about a football stadium,” Hasiotis said. “It would be a new brand, a new image for Buffalo.”

Esmonde disagreed that public funds should support such a large complex that he contended is unlikely to attract that many events a year.

“The Rolling Stones only come by every 10 years or so,” he said.

In response, Hasiotis pointed out that Ralph Wilson stadium in Orchard Park is already subsidized by Erie County taxpayers to the tune of some $27 million a year, under the terms of the lease renegotiated in 2012.

“How long are we going to keep putting money into something that’s losing?” he said.

Despite the sometimes heated discussion between the two, Esmonde and Hasiotis did agree that financing for a new stadium should not rely heavily on public money.

Hasiotis said the stadium itself could be built with private financing.

“If it can’t be done without a significant hit to the taxpayer, it should not be built,” he said.

The anticipated cost of a new stadium is likely around $1 billion, with taxpayers picking up between $400 million and $600 million in infrastructure costs. Infrastructure costs are typically borne by taxpayers.

Another point of consensus: all of the downtown sites proposed in the recent state study come with serious problems.

A particular challenge, said Hasiotis, is the complexity of consolidating parcels that are owned by different owners.

Another problem, said Barden, is that successful businesses – like Chef’s restaurant and the Pierce Arrow museum – already exist on some of the sites under consideration.

Esmonde added that there’s the risk that a downtown stadium could cut off access to Larkinville and the First Ward.

The speakers also split on the economic effects of a new stadium.

Esmonde said it’s easy to confuse economic regeneration with displacement of existing economic activity.

But Hasiotis said that a new Bills stadium could have more of an impact on the community than Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion initiative.

Nonetheless, Hasiotis complained that state officials won’t give his company’s proposal a serious hearing. Robert Gioia, chairman of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.,  and Howard Zemsky, chairman of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, have refused to meet with him to discuss the proposal, he said.

Hasiotis said elected officials need a feasibility and market study before they make any decisions on a new stadium.

The happy hour was part of “At Issue,” an event series hosted by Investigative Post. Sponsors include Bernhardi & Lukasik; the M&T Charitable Foundation; Talking Leaves Books; Schroeder, Braxton & Vogt; WGRZ; and Artvoice.

The series continues April 15 when Investigative Post environmental reporter Dan Telvock discusses his reporting on the Outer Harbor and moderates a panel of speakers. Details on the entire list of events can be found here.