This story was updated Friday, April 1, at 12:39 p.m.
Last November, a consultant working for New York State said it would cost $862 million to renovate the current home of the Buffalo Bills, Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park.
That number was often cited by team representatives and local and state officials as they advocated for what they said was a more cost-effective alternative: a new $1.4 billion stadium.
“Many people believe you can renovate the stadium,” Jim Wilkinson, a spokesperson for Pegula Sports and Entertainment, told the Buffalo News in August. “That’s just not realistic.”
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz concurred, telling the News in November that the $862 million estimate means “it probably does not make sense to do renovations.”
A second study of stadium conditions, commissioned by Erie County, was conducted last year by DiDonato Associates. That study said the stadium “remains in overall fair to good condition.” It recommended $43.9 million in work: $27.2 million to the stadium itself, the balance going towards ancillary work including the Bills practice dome.
County officials refused to answer questions about their study until after Investigative Post published this story Thursday. They then issued a statement saying that their study was focused on work necessary for the next five years, not a full renovation considered in the state study.
“The costs to renovate the stadium and bring it up to current league standards is a lot different than maintaining status quo,” according to a statement from the county executive’s office.
The redacted version of the county study provided to Investigative Post does not say the study was limited to work necessary for the next five years. What’s more, much of the work recommended in the county study involved long-term fixes, starting with $12.1 million earmarked for the replacement of stadium seats.
The county study did not consider the cost of replacing the stadium’s upper deck, which is generally believed to be in need of replacement in the next five to seven year. The state study pegged the replacement cost at $96 million, a figure the county now says is understated.
Investigative Post retained John Schenne, a licensed engineer, to review the county and state studies. His take:
“Before anyone can say one set of estimates is right and one set of estimates is wrong, I think somebody’s got to dig into how those numbers were determined and get a complete accounting of how the higher numbers were generated.”
State and county officials have gone out of their way to thwart such an accounting.
Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office refused to comment, instead issuing a brief statement that disputed our findings.
“A replacement is the right choice from a fiscal and fan experience perspective,” according to the statement.
AECOM, the firm that conducted the state study, did not respond to requests for an interview.
Erie County has only released a heavily redacted copy of the study it commissioned: 170 of its 182 pages were blacked out. Investigative Post filed a lawsuit last month seeking its release in full under the state Freedom of Information Law.
The county agreed to allow Investigative Post to review an unredacted copy of the study last Friday. They continued to refuse to release it or answer questions until after publication of the original version of this story.
In its belated statement, the county expressed the belief that replacing the stadium’s upper deck would cost much more than the state’s $96 million estimate: anywhere from $400 million to $600 million.
On Monday, the state, county and Bills announced an agreement that would involve the team and NFL putting $550 million towards construction of a new venue across the street from the present stadium. The state and county’s share would be $850 million, plus at least $250 million for maintenance and capital improvements over 30 years.
The total cost to taxpayers is at least $1.13 billion.
The NFL has already approved the deal, which also requires ratification by the county and state legislatures. Gov. Kathy Hochul is pressing to include the deal in the state budget, which is due to be voted on as soon as Friday.
Poloncarz wants the county legislature to approve the deal within a month, even though it does not include a community benefits agreement that April Baskin, chair of the Legislature, has proposed.
County withholds study details
Erie County has gone to great lengths to suppress the study it commissioned of stadium conditions.
The initial analysis was completed in May 2021 and updated in November. Investigative Post requested a copy on Sept. 27 under the state Freedom of Information Law. In response, the county provided a heavily redacted version.
The county argued that releasing the report in full “could endanger the life or safety of any person who enters the stadium.” The county also claimed releasing the study would “most certainly impair an imminent contract award” involving negotiations for a new Bills stadium.
Investigative Post appealed the decision, but that appeal was rejected by the county, aside from the release of a small number of charts and photographs.
Working with lawyers from the Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic, Investigative Post filed a lawsuit March 7 in state Supreme Court seeking the release of the full report. The county agreed to allow Investigative Post’s reporters, its lawyers and its engineer to review the unredacted version of the study in county offices. Officials continued to refuse to release the study or discuss its content, however.
Investigative Post subsequently requested an interview with Poloncarz, but a spokesman said the county executive “has nothing left to say about the old stadium.”
Meanwhile, the lawsuit continues.
The state-sponsored study conducted by AECOM was released on Nov. 2, months after negotiations with the Bills had started. On Dec. 19, Hochul pledged her support for a new venue in light of the Bills’ demands.
“If Orchard Park’s their first choice — their only choice, it’s Orchard Park — we’ll make it all happen,” she said.
While Hochul’s office would not respond to an interview request this week from Investigative Post, a state spokesperson issued a statement that contended that estimates made by its consultant are accurate and reflect a more comprehensive make-over of the stadium than did the county study. The statement added that recommendations made by state and county consultants shouldn’t be compared or mixed and matched.
What the county study found
It’s true that Highmark Stadium, which opened as Rich Stadium in 1973, has nearly 50 years of wear and tear.
It’s also true, based on modern NFL standards, that the decades-old stadium isn’t in the same category of newer, high-tech venues that have become more commonplace in many NFL markets.
It’s worth noting, however, that since 1993, the stadium has undergone significant upgrades, largely at taxpayer expense. The county’s engineering report lists improvements that total $250 million.
While the county’s engineering firm last year identified problems with Highmark Stadium’s upper deck and water and electrical systems, it concluded that the venue “remains in overall fair to good condition.”
Blacked out of the redacted version are references to the “most significant issues observed,” including “continued deterioration of the structure’s main sideline concrete frames and upper deck seating panels.”
The engineering firm observed that deterioration within the frame has “continued to increase” since a prior condition assessment completed in 2016.
“It is expected that [it] will require increasingly higher costs to maintain the structural integrity and serviceability of the frames,” the study concluded.
The county’s engineering consultant determined that, at the continued rate of deterioration, the upper deck seating panels would require full replacement within five to seven years.
“It is recommended planning for major rehabilitation of the upper decks be started,” the study notes.
Erie County officials have said Highmark Stadium is safe, with Poloncarz telling the Buffalo News in August that the upper deck was reinforced three years earlier. He also told the News that, based on 2018 recommendations from structural engineers, the county spent $2.25 million to renovate the upper deck.
“If there was any question regarding the safety of the facility, we would not let any attendee into it for a game or other event,” Poloncarz said at the time.
To assess the county’s current engineering report, Investigative Post retained Schenne, president of an East Aurora engineering firm that bears his name. He is licensed in 20 states, including New York, and has worked on more than 1,000 projects in the Buffalo area over the years. Among his projects: an assessment of the stability of the Great Northern Elevator on the city’s waterfront and the design engineering of Rocco Termini’s Thin Man Brewery on Chandler Street.
Schenne agreed that the stadium is safe for fans.
“I believe the structure is safe now and there’s nothing in the study or my personal observations, having been at that stadium, that there’s anything unsafe about it,” he said.
“I believe that stadium has got good bones, if you will. It’s 50 years old. It needs some repair and refurbishment, no doubt about it, but the estimate that I saw put together by DiDonato Associates seemed to me very reasonable and an accurate way to approach what refurbishment costs might be,” he said.
The state-sponsored study
Why are costs so much higher as estimated by the state’s consultant?
They were included in a broader report that also considered the pros and cons of siting a new stadium in Orchard Park vs. the edge of downtown Buffalo. The portion of the report that dealt with renovations totaled 46 pages, compared with the county’s 182-page study. The state study included far fewer details than the county report.
The state consultant’s recommendations are based on a tour of the stadium last August with Bills representatives and a review of “previous stadium condition analyses” that were not identified in the study. The report also noted that the firm did not conduct any “independent stadium condition assessment” and “relied solely on the work conducted by others.”
Schenne questioned several of AECOM’s big-ticket recommendations.
For example, soft costs, such as permits and fees charged by attorneys, architects and planners, were estimated at 30 percent of total expenses, or $199 million.
Schenne said soft costs are typically about 10 percent of the overall price tag.
Another example, noted by Investigative Post, was the recommendation of $31.7 million in work to improve food preparation facilities. The stadium’s current concession operator is Delaware North, whose senior vice president is the governor’s husband.
Again, the state maintains the study it commissioned envisioned a more comprehensive re-do of the stadium. For example, AECOM’s options to address what it termed “operational constraints and challenges” included:
- Moving the main concourse and expanding it to accommodate increased foot traffic.
- Rebuilding the east end zone to provide increased vehicular access to the field.
- Improving team locker rooms.
In total, the report listed a total construction cost of $663 million, plus the $199 million in soft costs.
The consultants indicated that they considered it “highly likely” that a renovation would encounter “challenges throughout the design and construction phases” that could drive estimated costs higher.
The state consultants noted that “significant renovations” may extend the useful life of the stadium for 15 to 20 years. The new stadium would tie the Bills to Buffalo for 30 years.