This is the first of a three-day series in our continuing in-depth coverage of issues related to a proposed stadium for the Buffalo Bills.
Before the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers broke ground last summer on a new arena, the team’s owners, elected officials and civic groups made certain the $1.8 billion project would benefit the entire community.
In September 2020, the parties signed a community benefits agreement, or CBA, that outlined who would get jobs and contracts during and after construction, how much those jobs would pay, what the project would look like, and how the city and its residents would share in the profits generated by the new arena.
The Clippers also committed $100 million to fund housing, education and other social and infrastructure improvement programs identified by community groups and elected officials.
Other cities negotiating the construction of new sports arenas have used CBAs, too.
The Atlanta Falcons earmarked $40 million for parks and a job training center, among other programs.
A coalition of community groups got the Pittsburgh Penguins to pay for a new grocery store in a largely African-American community that lacked one.
The Milwaukee Bucks agreed to hire at least half the workers at their new arena from the city’s poorest neighborhoods and pay them a living wage.
A CBA is a legally binding agreement between developers and community groups that ensures projects receiving public dollars “will improve local neighborhoods and the lives of local residents,” according to Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, executive director of Partnership for the Public Good, a Buffalo-based think tank.
“Really at the core is this principle that for public investment, or public subsidies, surrounding communities should see community benefits return to them,” Ó Súilleabháin said.
More than 350 such agreements have been won by community groups and lawmakers across the country over the past 20 years, according to John Goldstein, who has advised numerous CBA campaigns, including two here in Buffalo.
Jim Heaney discusses stadium on Capitol Pressroom
The CBA movement was born in Los Angeles in the late 1990s, Goldstein told Investigative Post, then quickly spread to big cities like New York, Chicago and Atlanta, as well as mid-sized cities such as Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Nashville, to name just a few.
Many CBAs, though not all, have been attached to professional sports arenas and the entertainment districts built around them. There are almost always “significant public investments” in such projects, Goldstein said, in the form of tax abatements, grants of public money or land, or infrastructure work
“That means that we, the public, are investors in the project,” he said. “And so we are entitled to be part of the team negotiating the deal.”
Our series on community benefit agreements
- Wednesday: How CBAs work in other cities.
- Thursday: Lawmaker proposes a CBA for Bills stadium. Read.
- Friday: WNY has never had a CBA for a major project. Read.
Thus far, the negotiations for construction of a new Buffalo Bills stadium have unfolded behind closed doors, between state and county officials and the team’s owners, with virtually no public insight or input. Nor can the CBA movement claim any clear victories in Western New York.
Ó Súilleabháin hopes that will change when a proposal comes out of the negotiating room and is sent to Erie County and New York state legislators for approval. She said a coalition has formed to promote a CBA proposal, which is being championed by State Senator Sean Ryan and Erie County Legislature Chair April Baskin.
In an interview with the local podcast The Square last month, Ryan called public subsidies for professional sports arenas “a small tragedy,” given that stadiums “provide virtually zero economic benefit to a community once they’re built.”
“Why in the world are taxpayers paying for stadiums?” Ryan said, adding that a CBA was the best way to ensure the public received some return on its investment.
CBAs across the country
The first CBAs were driven by labor unions, according to Goldstein, who became involved with the movement as a labor organizer in Milwaukee. In recent years, he said, CBAs have expanded to address broader community needs, such as affordable housing, education and health equity.
“This is not just, you know, labor unions thinking about how they’re going to get [more jobs],” he said. “It’s also engaging the community in a very real way to address important community needs.”
The Clippers CBA included benchmarks for local hiring and contracting, engaging minority- and women-owned businesses, and paying a living wage to workers during and after construction — the baseline considerations typical of most CBAs.
On top of that, the Clippers – who began play as the Buffalo Braves between 1970 and 1978 – committed $100 million to address some of Inglewood’s most pressing needs, including:
- $75 million to start a revolving loan fund to support affordable housing projects.
- $12.25 million for college scholarships, tutoring, counseling and other educational programs.
- $6 million to improve the city’s public library and build a new community center.
- $3 million in rental and legal assistance for people struggling to avoid eviction.
- $2.5 million to aid first-time homebuyers. Three-quarters of that money will seed a revolving loan fund for affordable housing projects. The rest will pay for educational programs and college scholarships, build a new library and community center, and provide assistance for renters facing eviction and aid to first-time homebuyers, among other initiatives.
Among the first CBAs was a 2001 agreement reached between a coalition of community groups and the developers of an entertainment district surrounding the Staples Center in Los Angeles. That arena continues to host the Clippers and Lakers of the NBA and the Kings of the National Hockey League.
In exchange for $150 million in public subsidies, the developers agreed that at least 70 percent of the jobs created by the project would pay a living wage. They committed to a “first source hiring program,” ensuring job opportunities would be offered to local, low-income communities, including those displaced by the project.
The agreement also included an affordable housing component, as well as commitments to using local contractors and leasing commercial space to local businesses.
Further, the developers agreed to fund a study of the surrounding community’s parks and recreation facilities and commit $1 million to improving them.
Agreements in mid-sized cities
Ó Súilleabháin described some benefits other municipalities have won as examples of what Western New York taxpayers might seek in negotiations with the Bills:
- In 2005, an alliance of San Diego community groups negotiated a CBA with the developers of Ballpark Village, a 7-acre development around the city’s Major League Baseball stadium that’s home to the Padres. The developers committed to environmentally friendly design standards and building practices, in addition to baseline demands for local hiring and living-wage jobs.
- In 2008, when the Pittsburgh Penguins of the NHL wanted to build a new arena, a coalition of more than 100 community groups won $8.3 million in funding for neighborhood projects, including a grocery store — an amenity the largely African-American Hill District lacked.
- In 2016, the Milwaukee Bucks signed a CBA for a new arena that included living wage and local hiring guarantees that extended past the construction period to cover the service and retail jobs the project would create over the long term.
- In 2017, the Atlanta Falcons opened a new $1.5 billion stadium. The team’s owner avoided a legally binding CBA but agreed to invest more than $40 million in parks, a job center, housing and social programs.
- In 2018, Nashville officials agreed to pay for a $275 million stadium for the city’s new Major League Soccer team with a CBA that provides for affordable housing and a childcare facility on the development site, as well as retail spaces for local artisans and small businesses at a reduced rental rate.
All those projects involved public subsidies.
And then there’s the Clippers CBA. The Clippers sought little in the way of public money. The project is privately owned and, for the most part, privately financed.
Ó Súilleabháin noted that the CBA was finalized as the first wave of the COVID pandemic underlined the fragility of at-risk populations who deal disproportionately with poor access to healthcare, quality housing and educational opportunities. She said it should provide a template for a CBA with the Bills, who expect significant subsidies for a new stadium in Orchard Park.
“If we’re going to put public money into what is essentially a leisure activity that requires some discretionary income to enjoy, then we also need to make some commitments to help people who are struggling,” Ó Súilleabháin said.
Thursday: What local CBA proponents want from an agreement to build a news stadium for the Buffalo Bills.