In January, good-government activists and elected officials said there should be no public subsidies for a new Buffalo Bills stadium without a community benefits agreement.
A memorandum of understanding outlining the deal, involving $1.13 billion in subsidies, was announced in March, with no CBA in place.
Still no CBA, though the agreement calls for one to be negotiated.
It’s now the middle of June, and there is still no CBA. No meetings have been scheduled to discuss one. No community groups have been asked to take part in negotiating one.
According to the MOU, all elements of the deal must be in place by Sep. 1. Western New Yorkers are running out of time and leverage, according to the chair of a group advocating for a strong CBA, who fears the community “will get what we get” out of the deal instead of getting “what we want.”
A CBA is a legally binding contract that ensures public subsidies for a private business or development project help the host community whose taxes pay for them.
In other cities, CBAs attached to professional sports venues have helped communities fund programs to improve access to quality healthcare and education. They’ve committed developers to building affordable and healthy housing. They’ve earmarked money for parks and recreational facilities.
“[A] rotating loan fund for first-time homebuyers … expanded public transportation … expanded facilities for schools … building new affordable housing. All are within the realm of possibility and should be what we’re asking for,” Miles Gresham, an attorney with Partnership for the Public Good, said at a press conference in February, when a host of community groups launched a campaign for a Bills stadium CBA.
The best CBAs are negotiated between a developer and a community group, or a coalition of groups, which then monitors the implementation of the agreement to make sure the community gets what was promised, according to John Goldstein, a national expert on CBAs.
The leverage those community groups wield are the legislative approvals required to get the public money flowing, Goldstein said.
“The parties really want the money and are generally willing to negotiate to get it,” Goldstein wrote in an email to Investigative Post last week. “There are few examples of strong CBAs [negotiated] after shovels are in the ground.”
On May 26, legislators approved the MOU between the county, the state and the Bills, laying the framework for the project. Two weeks earlier they’d allocated $100 million in cash upfront as a down payment on the county’s $250 million share in the $1.4 billion project.
(The state will kick in another $600 million in taxpayer money. The rest will be covered by the team, which will help cover its share by charging a fee to purchase season tickets, and by a forgivable loan from the National Football League.)
Erie County Legislature Chair April Baskin took the lead among elected officials in pushing for a Bills stadium CBA. She began circulating an outline for an agreement last fall.
“I believe that what we need is a coalition of people that get behind this concept and demand it,” Baskin told Investigative Post in December, “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.”
A spokesperson for Baskin told Investigative Post last week that a CBA would be hammered out over the summer, though he confirmed no negotiating sessions have been scheduled.
He identified who will take part in talks, however: The Legislature will be represented by Baskin, along with Legislators Tim Meyers of Cheektowaga and John Mills of Orchard Park. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz will have a representative, as will Empire State Development Corporation, the state agency through which the state funds will flow.
And of course Pegula Sports and Entertainment will be at the table.
But there will be no community groups in the room.
“So it’s not a true CBA as there’s no community group at the table, but we’re confident Legislators can represent community interests … the intent is to deliver an accountable, transparent oversight process of implementation,” Sean Mulligan, the Legislature’s deputy chief of staff, wrote in an email.
The Buffalo Niagara Community Reinvestment Coalition — a network of 13 nonprofit organizations that works with regional banks to direct resources to disadvantaged communities — “will assist organizing, educating, and listening efforts” over the summer, according to Mulligan.
Kathryn Franco, the coalition’s chair, told Investigative Post the coalition is ready to help, but has not been informed what those efforts will look like or when they’re meant to happen.
Franco said the Bills stadium “looks and feels like a done deal,” which is why the coalition is eager to engage the community quickly.
“So much of it has happened behind closed doors,” she said, calling it “egregious” that a football stadium could be built with public dollars without the host community receiving substantial benefits in return.
“I think that, in this moment, there’s not really an excuse to subsidize billionaires,” she said, noting that was her personal opinion and not the coalition’s.
The May 14 Tops massacre offered reminders about “the long-term disinvestment” that has weakened and isolated poor communities of color, especially East Side neighborhoods, Franco said.
“There’s hopefully this renewed sentiment around why it is so necessary for there to be a meaningful CBA … particularly when those public dollars could be doing a lot of good instead of building a new stadium,” she said.
Asked to describe a “meaningful CBA,” Franco said the first step would be to treat the public as a stakeholder in negotiating its terms.
“But the community is not at the table,” she said. “So this is not going to be — the way that it’s happening — a true CBA.”
If that trajectory is not altered, she said, Western New York could be on track for the kind of failed CBA that was attached to the construction of a new stadium for the New York Yankees in 2006.
“There was a CBA, it was negotiated exclusively between elected officials and the team owners,” Franco said. “And then it really resulted in nothing. There weren’t any tangible benefits that really came out of that. There was just this huge public subsidy, and there was no benefit to the community.”
One fear Franco entertains is that existing philanthropy performed by the Bills organization and its players might be repackaged as a CBA, instead of the stadium subsidies resulting in new investments.
“I think that there’s been so much that people just don’t understand about losing revenue from concessions, losing revenue from parking, losing naming rights,” she said, referring to all the income the county has relinquished to the Bills in previous negotiations.
“And now here’s this new ask: Continue to pay for our stadiums. And it’s billionaires and multimillionaires that are making this request of the people of New York State.”
Having allocated $100 million in cash upfront, the county is likely to borrow the other $150 million to pay its share of the new stadium’s costs.
The borrowing will require another legislative approval, which is another opportunity for community groups to pressure the Bills and elected officials to enter into a CBA, according to Goldstein, the CBA expert.
“There can be multiple opportunities to influence the outcome. Funding decisions are big ones,” he said. “The decision to issue bonds may be another leverage point.”
Franco, the coalition chair, said the community can’t afford to miss the opportunity.
“It feels like there were decisions that were already made. And the trajectory is the trajectory, and the train is just running on the tracks,” she said.
“I am a strong believer that we shouldn’t just get what we get. We should get what we want.”