Linking community benefits to a Bills stadium
This is the second of a three-day series in our continuing in-depth coverage of issues related to a proposed stadium for the Buffalo Bills.
Erie County Legislature Chair April Baskin doesn’t concern herself with whether a new Buffalo Bills stadium will be built in Buffalo or Orchard Park.
She’s not particularly worried about its cost.
What matters most, Baskin told Investigative Post, is what the community gets in exchange for the taxpayer dollars the team’s owners want from the state and county.
Pegula Sports and Entertainment has made it clear the team expects significant public subsidies — as much as $1 billion — to build a new facility adjacent to the current stadium in Orchard Park.
Baskin is determined that those subsidies come attached to a legally binding community benefits agreement, or CBA, modeled on agreements won by other communities across the country.
A CBA is a “transformational” opportunity, Baskin said, to win funding for programs meant to improve the lives and prospects of the county’s urban and rural poor.
The success of a publicly funded stadium, she said, should be measured by how the project helps “people who really need public dollars to be reinvested in their upward mobility.”
As an example of what Western New Yorkers might seek in a CBA with the Bills, Baskin pointed to agreements won in other cities, including Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Nashville and Atlanta.
Of particular interest to Baskin and her allies is the 2020 agreement between the Los Angeles Clippers and Inglewood, CA., where the NBA franchise is building a $1.8 billion arena.
Inglewood sold the Clippers 13 acres of city-owned land for the project at a cost of $66 million. In exchange, the team agreed to commit $100 million to address some of the host community’s pressing needs.
That money will seed a revolving loan fund for affordable housing projects. It 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.
The deal also included benchmarks for local hiring and contracting, engaging minority- and women-owned businesses, and paying a living wage to workers during and after construction.
Our series on community benefit agreements
- Wednesday: How CBAs work in other cities. Read.
- Thursday: Lawmaker proposes a CBA for Bills stadium.
- Friday: WNY has never had a CBA for a major project. Read.
These provisions are typical, according to John Goldstein, who has consulted with numerous community organizations across the country fighting for CBAs. He maintains a database of more than 350 such agreements, many of them centered on professional sports arenas.
“Whether it’s infrastructure, whether it’s discounted land, whether it’s a direct subsidy — especially with stadiums, there always are significant public investments,” Goldstein told Investigative Post.
“That means that we, the public, are investors in the project. And so we are entitled to be part of the team negotiating the deal.”
A Bills CBA proposal
Any deal for a new Bills stadium will require legislative approval — first from Erie County lawmakers, then the New York State Legislature.
Before a proposal passes at the Erie County Legislature, Baskin told Investigative Post, she would like a CBA that includes baseline hiring and contracting commitments that outstrip those already required by the state for projects that use public money.
During the construction period, those proposed commitments include:
- 50 percent of the value of construction contracts to minority- and women-owned businesses.
- 30 percent of construction hours to workers defined as “disadvantaged,” based on household income.
- 15 percent of construction hours to participants in an apprentice program — half of them from “disadvantaged” households.
Baskin’s proposal also includes post-construction commitments, including:
- 30 percent of retailers, vendors and service companies at the stadium should be minority- or women-owned. And half of those should come from “disadvantaged” ZIP codes.
- Greater diversity among the sheriff’s deputies and private contractors who provide security on game days. Currently, only two of the 146 sheriff deputies in the division that works the stadium are people of color, according to Baskin.
- Public transportation to within a quarter mile of the new stadium, to be provided by the NFTA, the team, or both. Currently, the nearest bus stop is 2 miles away.
- One of the new stadium’s suites should be designated a “community suite,” exclusively for the use of low-income families.
In addition, Baskin wants the team to commit $100 million to various social programs serving the entire county, particularly those “focused on alleviating disparities in the social determinants of health,” according to a draft resolution she intends to bring before her fellow legislators.
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Baskin has a broad definition of what makes for a healthy community, including access to healthcare and healthy food, freedom from crime and gun violence, and the abatement of environmental health hazards, such as lead paint in old housing and pollution from highways and factories.
“An investment from this particular project into those specific areas would be transformational for the people in this region,” she said.
Baskin’s proposal would also create a community oversight board empowered to monitor compliance with the CBA’s provisions.
Getting to a deal
Baskin is not alone pursuing a CBA. She has been working with state Senator Sean Ryan — whose district includes Orchard Park, the Pegulas’ preferred site for a new facility — to attach a CBA to any agreement.
“We have to make sure the stadium is built with unionized labor,” Ryan said in an interview with the local podcast The Square last month. “We have to make sure there’s good diversity in that workforce. And then we have to look at the stadium on game days. There are a lot of employees there.”
Those workers, too, should be local, diverse, and reasonably paid, Ryan said, whether they are unionized or not.
Baskin’s and Ryan’s efforts have been supported by a number of community groups, including the Partnership for the Public Good, the Coalition for Economic Justice and PUSH Buffalo.
“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,” Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, executive director of the Partnership for the Public Good, told Investigative Post.
“We’re really looking to our legislators to hold back that approval until they see more discussion of community benefits.”
Also supporting a CBA is Bills in Buffalo, an ad hoc group pushing for the new stadium to be built in the city.
Jim Heaney discusses Bills stadium on Capitol Pressroom
“We need to get every last bit that we can from this deal, and part of that is having a CBA,” Benjamin Siegel, vice president of Signature Development and a founder of Bills in Buffalo, told Investigative Post.
Specifically, Siegel is concerned with the contracts paid for with public dollars — “concessions and security and construction jobs and everything else,” he said.
“You don’t just give it to your cronies. You give it to the people in the community that need it.”
Henry Taylor, director of the Center for Urban Studies at the University at Buffalo, is a Bills season ticket-holder. He, too, wants to be certain that the expenditure of public money on a stadium results in broad community benefits.
“My question is: Who gets the billion?” Taylor told Investigative Post. “Who are the workers? Who are the owners of the companies? What are the communities they live in?”
Baskin said she has shared her proposal — called “Invest Well Erie” — with members of the Democratic majority caucus in the county Legislature, local state legislators, and the local liaison for Gov. Kathy Hochul, as well as block clubs and community organizations.
“I’m talking to whoever will listen to me,” she said.
“I believe that what we need is a coalition of people that get behind this concept and demand it, so that those negotiators in the room have a clear understanding that this is not a request of the people, but it is an absolute must-have in order for the stadium to come to fruition.”
Goldstein, the consultant, said the keys to a successful CBA campaign are building a community-based coalition, understanding a project and its financing, mapping out the power structures and the politics, understanding the points at which decisions can be influenced, and then “organizing like crazy” to pressure the decision-makers.
“The best coalitions are the ones that are the best organizers, because they can change the power dynamic around a given project,” Goldstein said.
Siegel, the real estate developer advocating for a stadium in the city, said a good CBA will require fortitude from community groups and elected officials alike.
“I just hope people don’t lose their backbone on this and at least get something out of it, and are adamant that we get this or we can’t make a deal with you,” Siegel said.
Coming Friday: Past efforts to negotiate a CBA for major projects have failed.