According to experts, the community benefits agreement for the new Buffalo Bills stadium lacks key provisions that are common to successful CBAs elsewhere.
That’s partly by design.
The CBA for the Bills stadium, announced Wednesday, is the first such agreement for a major project in Erie County. It calls for the team to commit $3 million annually over 30 years to fund projects that benefit the community. That’s in exchange for a $850 million public contribution to the $1.5 billion stadium.
But the deal does not specify how that money should be spent, leaving those decisions up to an oversight panel, appointed by the team and county and state officials, that will have no staff or budget. Experts told Investigative Post that runs counter to similar CBAs around the country.
John Goldstein, a national expert on community benefit agreements, reviewed the CBA for Investigative Post and said it fails to:
- Identify specific projects and programs to be funded.
- Establish criteria to measure progress on those initiatives.
- Provide robust mechanisms to hold the team accountable if it fails to meet the goals set forth in the CBA.
“There’s a few places where they get a little specific, not very many, a few places where they have some numbers that are measurable, but usually, they’re aspirational, and they’re not requirements,” Goldstein said.
“And then as far as enforceable … it doesn’t even have those sort of minimal levels of enforceability.”
Erie County Legislature Chair April Baskin — who helped negotiate the CBA — said some terms are specific where they need to be while others are intentionally open ended to allow for flexibility. Rather than spelling out specific projects, she said, the oversight committee will decide how the money will be spent.
“I’m more comfortable with giving that independent body made up of community members that power, [rather] than trying to structure it in a document,” she said.
That’s because, she said, county government may not be as nimble or attuned to the needs of the community — the city’s East Side, for example — compared to a committee made up of appointees from around the city and county.
“You put [county government] in charge of figuring out the structure, and you might end up with something that does further marginalize the people who are most in need,” Baskin said.
But, experts said, that’s a new approach for a CBA, and could yield mixed results.
“I’ve never heard of it done that way before,” said Ioanna Paraskevopoulos, a CBA expert and former executive director of the Cincinnati-based advocacy group Action Tank.
In addition to the annual monetary contribution from the Bills, the most significant parts of the CBA mandate hiring and paying women and people of color to build, maintain and operate the new stadium. There are also goals for sourcing food and beverages sold at concession stands from minority and women-owned companies.
The CBA also includes a transit hub built into the stadium and additional bus service via the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.
Erie County’s first CBA
While local advocacy groups have tried to secure CBAs in Buffalo before, the agreement for the new Bills stadium is the first time such an effort has been successful.
Commonly defined as an agreement between a developer and community groups — including labor unions, faith-based groups and other local organizations — CBAs often mandate the developer to contribute funding to a set of needs in the area.
In Los Angeles, for example, the NBA’s Clippers agreed in 2020 to contribute $100 million to various programs in exchange for public contributions to a $1.8 billion arena. That agreement included $75 million in a revolving loan fund for affordable housing, $12.25 million for college scholarships and $6 million for the city’s library, among other commitments.
In Nashville in 2018, officials agreed to pay for a $275 million stadium for the city’s new Major League Soccer team with a CBA that provided for affordable housing and a childcare facility on the development site. The CBA included retail spaces for local artisans and small businesses at a reduced rental rate as well.
And in Pittsburgh in 2008, community groups successfully negotiated with the NHL’s Penguins to contribute $1 million to a grocery store in a historically-Black neighborhood and commit to hiring nearby residents. That grocery store, however, has since closed.
In Buffalo, efforts to attach CBAs to the Canalside and Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus developments were largely unsuccessful. Those efforts netted several concessions from developers, but failed to result in a legally binding agreement.
But now that Erie County has its first CBA — subject to approval by the Legislature — experts warn that leaving specificity out of the CBA could ultimately mean the agreement achieves fewer community benefits than intended.
Goldstein, for one, read the oversight committee as not being set up to succeed, in part because it has no staff and no budget of its own.
Baskin said two Erie County offices, the Equal Employment Office and the Office of Consumer Protection, will provide day-to-day support for the oversight committee, and argued that it will be a robust operation.
Role of oversight committee
The oversight committee, Baskin said, will be in charge of doling out an annual $3 million allocation, which will grow depending on inflation. That’s about what the Bills are currently paying backup cornerback Siran Neal this coming season.
The oversight committee will consist of nine members. Two members will be appointed by Baskin, two by County Executive Mark Poloncarz, three by the Bills, and two by the Erie County Stadium Corp., a subsidiary of the Empire State Development Corp.
The committee is tasked with holding public meetings, reviewing documents and progress reports from the Bills, and issuing an annual report. Baskin argued that using an oversight committee to direct the annual $3 million allocation is better than prescribing what the money should be used for in the CBA, in part because it allows for more transparency and input from residents.
“There’s a lot of space for a lot of people to advocate,” she said.
Still, that approach comes with significant risks, experts said.
Paraskevopoulos, who co-founded the group Action Tank, said the structure being used in the Bills CBA is new. Because the CBA doesn’t outline specifically where the Bills’ money will be spent, a lot is riding on the oversight committee.
“That’s not to say that it’s all bad, but it’s leaving a lot of up to chance or unknown factors,” she said.
In the event the Bills don’t live up to the CBA, the county is allowed to take the team’s owners — the Pegula family and their companies — to court. The stadium lease agreement states that if the Bills break the CBA, the county can seek to evict them from the stadium.
Goldstein noted that stronger CBAs include fines or similar penalties if a team or developer doesn’t comply with the agreement.
What’s in the CBA, and what’s not
Much of the 24-page CBA centers on jobs and contracts, including:
- 30 percent of construction work is to be done by minority or women-owned contractors.
- 30 percent of companies hired to operate and maintain the stadium post-construction must be minority or women-owned, and 6 percent must be veteran-owned. The CBA further states that 30 percent of spending on maintenance and operation go to those companies.
- 30 percent of food and beverage sold in the stadium should be provided by minority or women-owned suppliers.
Baskin noted that she’s worked with Paul Brown, president of the Buffalo Building Trades Council, to get more people of color into union halls so that they’ll be the “first people off the bench” when construction begins.
The CBA also includes a number of benefits for students, including opening the stadium for field trips, offering internships to college students, allowing high school students to shadow Bills officials, and sending Bills officials to schools to give lectures and presentations.
The Bills will also permit the county to host five “civic events” at the stadium each year, and the team must donate an unspecified number of tickets to Bills games and parking passes to county officials each season.
To Goldstein, however, the CBA doesn’t go nearly far enough in outlining exactly how county residents will benefit from the new stadium. Goldstein, who runs the New Jersey based consulting firm Coalitions, Campaigns and Community Benefits, has been an advisor on numerous CBA campaigns, including the two prior efforts in Buffalo.
“I just feel that … the right words are in there, but the specificity and, you know, the quantification is not,” he said.
Also not included in the CBA are a number of items Baskin included in her Invest Well Erie report, which served as the basis for the agreement.
For one, that report argued the Bills should pay to replace the Erie County Community College football field that the new stadium will be built on top of. Baskin said the county will pay to replace the field.
That report also called for specific investments on Buffalo’s East Side, including opening, funding and staffing “neighborhood investment centers” in Cold Springs and the Fruit Belt; restoring the Lanigan Field House; and hiring public housing residents for jobs at the stadium.
Those elements didn’t make it into the CBA, Baskin said, because “there were some legal ramifications around singling out a race or singling out a specific community when you really need to be investing in the general public.”
Also not included in the CBA are specific goals or spending commitments for affordable housing, food access, and mental or physical health access — items that are often included in CBAs elsewhere. Those are items the oversight committee will address once it begins to spend the annual allocation from the Bills, Baskin said.
“That community board will have the power to work directly with the Bills, the power to audit the Buffalo Bills, the power to ask questions about their philanthropic giving, and of course, the power to be able to say how the annual investment will be spent,” she said.
Also not included in the CBA: the signatures of residents or community groups.
Paraskevopoulos argued that the strongest CBAs include resident signatures as an additional accountability measure.
“Without that, as well-intentioned as the elected official is, she will likely not be as incentivized to enforce as the community members would be, particularly given potential political considerations she would have to make before initiating any action,” Paraskevopoulos said.
Lack of involvement during negotiations
When putting together her Invest Well Erie County report — which Baskin said became the framework for the CBA — she met with numerous community groups, leaders and agencies to ask them what they wanted to see in a CBA. But when it came to negotiating the CBA, Bills’ representatives met only with state and county officials. That left some local advocates wishing community members were directly involved in CBA talks.
Last summer, for example, community groups worried aloud that the county had lost crucial leverage to win a robust CBA. Those groups also expressed concern that stadium talks were being held behind closed doors. Complicating matters was the insistence of Poloncarz, that stadium negotiators sign nondisclosure agreements. That meant legislators like Baskin weren’t allowed to report progress or consult with community groups.
Jamal Davis, transit rider organizer for the Coalition For Economic Justice, said Baskin’s work on the CBA has been “phenomenal,” but that the process should have included more communication.
Going forward, he said, “it should be much more communication than what it has been. It shouldn’t be something that’s rushed and [where they] tell us to come to the table, hurry up with your opinions. It should be a public conversation.”
Davis said he’s glad the CBA included expanded transit to the stadium, but wants transit riders like himself to be included in how that expansion is rolled out.
“What does that look like? How do we be actively a part of not only the conversations, but how can we support?” he said. “We’re here for this type of thing. This is what we do.”
Baskin, for her part, bristled at the suggestion that community members weren’t included in the CBA and said she “100 percent disagrees” with that criticism.
She argued that the COVID-19 pandemic posed such a challenge to the county government that it limited her ability to convene additional public meetings about the CBA. However, in-person meetings for county business have been back for months now.
Still, she said, the Invest Well Erie County report did include community input that made it into the final CBA.
“To say that that did not happen, because it just did not happen in the way that we are used to seeing the public convening, that doesn’t mean that it did not happen,” Baskin said. “So I believe this is very much a community benefits agreement that was shaped by the general public.”
Goldstein, however, maintained that community groups must be at the negotiating table for the agreement to be a true community benefits agreement. In Buffalo’s case, he said, the community was not part of the negotiations.
He called the CBA “a standard development agreement between the county and the developer.”
“It’s no different than that,” he said. “And it misses the whole point of the community benefits agreement, which is that the community has the ability to actually negotiate with the developer or the team, which never happened here.”