Dec 21

2021

Poor leadership on display in stadium talks

It's become apparent that Gov. Hochul and other government officials negotiating with the Bills over a new stadium are bargaining scared - and ineptly.
Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

It looks like Buffalo is going to keep its losing streak intact when it comes to major planning decisions.

You know the history. 

Expanding the University at Buffalo campus in Amherst is the mother of bad planning decisions.

Add to the list running the Scajaquada Expressway through the middle of Delaware Park and dividing the East Side, and its majestic Humboldt Parkway, with the Kensington Expressway.

The Skyway, anyone?

And, of course, building a football stadium in Orchard Park.

We’re about to see history repeat itself with Gov. Kathy Hochul’s announcement Monday that she’s good with replacing the stadium in Orchard Park with another stadium in Orchard Park.


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Let’s face it, the notion of repeating that mistake isn’t the only head-scratcher involving the proposed stadium. The notion of spending hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money to build the Pegulas a new playground for their football team is bizarre, if you think about it.

I lay it all out in my Outrages & Insights column in Buffalo Spree, which just hit the streets.

As I wrote in the column:

The case against a significant taxpayer subsidy begins with the wealth of the Pegulas and the profitability of the team. Forbes pegs the Pegulas’ net worth at $5.7 billion, a number that has steadily grown in recent years. They rank as the fifteenth richest owners in all of professional sports in North America. Contributing to the growth is the ever-increasing value of the Bills, up from the $1.4 billion the Pegulas paid for the team in 2014 to $2.27 billion today, also according to Forbes … 

How profitable are the Bills compared to other teams? It’s tough to say, as only one team releases its financials, the publicly held Green Bay Packers, smallest of the league’s small-market teams. In July, the Packers announced a record profit of $70.3 million for the 2019 season, the last before COVID-19 struck. 

Put it all together and it’s safe to say the Pegulas can afford to build a stadium without help from New York’s overtaxed residents and business owners.

There are other reasons to be hesitant about opening our wallets for the Pegulas. 


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As Investigative Post previously reported, stadiums do next to nothing to help the local economy because they don’t bring much new money into the region. Rather, they redirect how discretionary dollars get spent.

“The typical baseball team has no more impact on the local economy than a mid-sized department store and a football team, which is there for only eight or nine games per year, has even less,” says Michael Leeds, a sports economist with Temple University. 

There’s also the size of the subsidy the Pegulas are demanding behind closed doors. No one knows for sure, but a figure of up to $1 billion has been bandied about in press reports. A subsidy even approaching that number would make it the richest in NFL history.

Look, in a perfect world, the Pegulas would build a stadium on their dime. But we don’t live in a perfect world, so keeping the Bills is going to require some taxpayer assistance. How much, and what we get in return, is the question.

There’s been a push for consideration of building the stadium in the city. Keeping in mind that the economic impact would be minimal, no matter where it’s built, a city site would at least benefit established businesses and be more accessible for fans and stadium workers alike.

The counterpoint: Oh, but the tailgating experience!

By which, supporters mean tens of thousands of fans piling into parking lots around the stadium to get drunk prior to heading into the game.

That’s a reason to build in Orchard Park?

This brings me to what’s really bothering me today: the inept bargaining strategy of our government officials, many of whom are buying into such lame thinking.

I served on eight bargaining teams for my union when I worked at The Buffalo News, which is to say I know a thing or two about negotiating. And the last thing you do is concede to the other side’s primary demands until you get what you want in return. Hochul, in agreeing to a replacement stadium in Orchard Park, committed a strategic blunder. That’s if the state is really trying to drive a hard bargain.


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I mean, neither the state nor Erie County bothered to commission their own studies before entering negotiations with the Bills. They came into negotiations unarmed. Instead, they have relied on self-serving studies commissioned by the team until scrambling to hire consultants to do a much-less-comprehensive study that was completed long after negotiations began.

Couple the state’s lack of preparation and Hochul’s huge conflict of interest — her husband, William Hochul, is a senior executive for Delaware North, the concessionaire at Highmark Stadium — and I’m questioning whether she can be trusted to look out for taxpayers.

Her gaffe, coupled with Mayor Byron Brown’s betrayal of his city by declaring he, too, prefers the Orchard Park site, show what kind of leadership we’re dealing with. Which is to say, poor, and poor leadership leads to poor planning decisions.

Add to this a troubling lack of transparency.  

The Bills, and Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, insist renovating the current stadium would be cost prohibitive. But the county has refused to release anything but a heavily redacted engineering study they say supports that conclusion. You can’t tell much by the little that was released.

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Likewise, the Bills commissioned two studies that loom large in ongoing contract negotiations. The team has shared those reports with the state, which makes them a matter of public record. But state officials have refused to release the studies, which prompted Investigative Post to file a lawsuit earlier this month, seeking their release under the state Freedom of Information Law.

I understand that negotiations can’t be conducted in public. But the lengths to which our public officials have gone to keep the public in the dark is disturbing. The lack of transparency ought to arouse suspicion.

Bottom line: The Pegulas may not be the world’s best franchise owners — witness the Sabres — but they’re no dummies. They’re playing our public officials, who seem so afraid of losing the Bills that they’re unwilling to do their job on behalf of their constituents.