Bills stadium study being kept secret
Three years ago, the Buffalo Bills hired consultants to examine options and costs tied to a new football stadium in Western New York.
The study is now part of negotiations over a proposed open-air stadium in Orchard Park that will reportedly cost $1.4 billion, with much, if not all of it, paid for by taxpayers.
So, did the study consider other stadium options? What does it say about potential costs? Is there anything in it related to the conditions of the Bills’ current home, Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park?
The Bills aren’t saying and neither are public officials.
To date, both parties are keeping the findings private, prompting one good government advocate to cry foul.
“We’re talking about a lot of public money that’s being requested,” said Paul Wolf, a local attorney who serves as president of the New York Coalition on Open Government.
“Nothing known for sure, but the speculation is, I mean, it could be a billion dollars. I mean, that is certainly a lot of tax dollars for any project and transparency should be an important part of that process.”
Team representatives have said all along that they never intended to release the study. Public officials involved in stadium talks have adopted a similar stance, arguing that the contents of the privately financed report can and should remain confidential.
“It’s a private document and they are a private business,” said Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.
Multiple local, state and county officials, including Poloncarz’s office, said they do not have physical copies of the study. One public agency — Empire State Development Corp. — acknowledged it has the study, but denied a Freedom of Information request from Investigative Post, arguing that releasing it would “impair present or imminent contract awards.”
Wolf called ESD’s interpretation of the law a “complete farce.”
“There are no other competitors involved with this negotiation,” Wolf said. “If this was a process that involved competitive bidding then an argument could be made to withhold the study, but that is not the case here.”
In a letter to Poloncarz, then Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul and other officials involved in negotiations, Wolf called for the public release of the team’s stadium feasibility study.
In his letter, he noted that the owners of the Jacksonville Jaguars have scheduled 14 public meetings as part of a process tied to a downtown development project that involves a performance center and a renovated stadium for the team.
He also mentioned that in 2002, San Diego formed a Citizens Task Force on Chargers Issues to evaluate the team’s request for a new stadium. That group held 50 public meetings as part of their work, according to Wolf. The Chargers later moved to Los Angeles in 2017.
“If Pegula Sports and Entertainment are interested in a public/private partnership, then their stadium study should be released to the public,” Wolf wrote. “Elected representatives at the local and state level must demand transparency and provide the public opportunities to be heard, before any votes occur on a stadium agreement that involves the commitment of tax dollars.”
In 2018, the Pegulas hired two consulting firms — CAA Icon and Populous — to examine the “next steps” for Highmark Stadium and “potential renovations” at KeyBank Center in downtown.
On May 25, team officials met privately with county and state officials at Highmark Stadium to review a version of the study that was updated to reflect economic challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The objective of the plan was to outline a plan based on the independent study the organization conducted with regard to future stadium and arena projects in Western New York,” the Bills said in a statement following the meeting.
But what exactly did the consultants study and what specifically does their report say?
Only those directly involved in the negotiations know for sure, but some things have become clearer in recent weeks.
For one, team officials are committed to building an open-air stadium in Orchard Park.
Team officials have ruled out continuing to play at an upgraded Highmark Stadium. A 2014 study conducted by a consultant hired by the state pegged the price to repair the current stadium at $540 million, which would include structural improvements, rebuilding the stadium’s third deck and other renovations.
Initial reports suggested the Pegulas wanted the public to cover 100 percent of the stadium’s cost. Later, in an interview with The Buffalo News, Pegula Sports spokesman Jim Wilkinson said the team hopes to finance the project under “some form of a public-private partnership.”
Last week, Wilkinson again said the Pegulas want to build a new stadium in Orchard Park, telling a local television station that “the City of Buffalo and State [of New York] are going to have to decide if they want a team.”
It’s unclear if the consultants hired by the Pegulas considered any other locations or stadium proposals before settling on the current stadium plan.
Who has the study?
In an interview with Investigative Post, Poloncarz said legal counsel from the county and the state have reviewed the study, but his office does not have a hard copy.
Other local, state and federal officials representing Western New York contacted by Investigative Post either failed to respond to requests for comment or said their offices do not have copies. They include the offices of Sen. Chuck Schumer, U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins and state Sen. Sean Ryan.
While Gov. Kathy Hochul vowed to make transparency a “hallmark” of her administration, her office said the team’s stadium study is exempt from public disclosure under New York’s Freedom of Information law because it is subject to negotiations involving a pending contract.
“Governor Hochul is deeply committed to transparency and restoring trust in government,” Hochul’s office said in a statement released in response to questions from Investigative Post. “While nobody is more committed to keeping the Bills in Buffalo than Governor Hochul, negotiations are ongoing and we will have more to share at a later time.”
Ryan, whose district includes Orchard Park, said the information he has received about stadium talks has come from state representatives who are familiar with the negotiations.
Ryan said he expects that the three negotiating parties — the team, the county and the state — will continue to negotiate a deal privately that will eventually be presented to county and state lawmakers once more details have been finalized.
“I would like to know more, but I know it’s not good for the private negotiations,” he said. “The more parties you bring, the harder it is to conduct negotiations.”
Calls for greater transparency
George Hasiotis, whose group, Greater Buffalo Sports & Entertainment Complex, proposed building a $1.7 billion privately financed, multi-purpose stadium on the Outer Harbor eight years ago, said he sees no reason why the public should not be privy to the details of the team’s feasibility study.
Without knowing what the team’s consultants studied or what they found, Hasiotis said the public cannot really know if other potentially more cost-effective and sensible alternatives were considered.
“How much do you have to give everyone — whether it’s an elected official or someone who is reaping the benefits of tax subsidy — before you get some accountability from them?” Hasiotis said. “Why don’t we know?”
Wolf, of the New York Coalition on Open Government, views release of the study as a “first step toward transparency.”
In his letter, Wolf noted that county and state lawmakers approved a lease agreement in 2013 that required taxpayers to invest $130 million in upgrades at Highmark Stadium without holding any public hearings first.
“The closed door approach which occurred in 2013 should not be repeated again,” Wolf wrote.
Officials from Erie County and the state reportedly toured Highmark Stadium last week in what was described as a private, in-person meeting with representatives from the Bills. The session happened the same week NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, during a visit to a charity golf tournament in Batavia, said a new stadium is needed to keep the Bills in Western New York for decades to come.
Fans and taxpayers who spoke with Investigative Post made it clear that they want the Bills to remain in Western New York. They also said they supported greater transparency.
“I think being transparent is a good thing, whether it’s good news or bad news,” said Ron Kazmiercak, a Hamburg resident who spoke with Investigative Post outside the Bills team store at Highmark Stadium. “I think the more information people have, politicians, even the taxpayers have, the better informed decision that they can make about it.”
Luke Kuczewski, manager of the Big Tree Inn, a bar and restaurant down the street from the stadium that has been a popular stop for Bills fans and players for decades, agreed.
“If it’s going to be coming from the people’s money, it should be something the people should probably know about,” he said.
Kuczewski said he’s hopeful a deal will get worked out to keep the Bills in Western New York because he believes the community would suffer a severe “culture shock” if the team ever left.
“I think it would be a big hit to the culture of Buffalo itself because a lot of people pride themselves on being Bills fans,” he said.