Jul 9

2024

Buffalo Bills begin spending on community projects

Team's decision to start funding projects under community benefits agreement before stadium is completed catches oversight panel by surprise.

The Buffalo Bills stadium under construction in Orchard Park. Photo by Garrett Looker.


The good news: The Buffalo Bills have already begun spending millions of dollars on community groups and projects in accordance with the community benefits agreement attached to the team’s new stadium.

There’s more: The team has extended the CBA, agreeing to make the annual allocations for three additional years. That means the Bills will spend an additional $9 million on the CBA, for a total of $99 million over 33 years. It also means the money is flowing now, instead of starting in 2026 when the new Highmark Stadium, on track to cost $1.7 billion, is open for business.

However, there’s also bad news: The nine-member committee tasked with monitoring the CBA and holding the Bills accountable for spending the annual $3 million allocation is behind on its work, given that the team started without them. In fact, the Community Benefits Oversight Committee didn’t know until recently that the Bills would extend the agreement and start spending its annual allocation early. The committee is now playing catch up.

“I’ll take some blame for the confusion, because it was absolutely the intention that this would be started with the new building,” said Erie County Attorney Jeremy Toth. “Because of the effective date within the CBA, we added three years to the process.”

That means the committee had no voice in how the team spent this year’s $3 million. 

“We did not have any say in it this time,” said Rev. Mark Blue, chair of the committee and president of the Buffalo NAACP. “But we will develop a formula of how things can be done allocating from going forward.”


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Penny Samaia, the Bills’ VP of New Stadium Relations, said at a meeting Monday the first $3 million was spent on economic development,  youth and education, and community and civic programs.  A full accounting of the spending will not be available until the team submits its annual report to the state, Erie County and the committee on July 29, he said. The oversight committee will discuss how the money was spent at its August meeting. 

Blue said the committee will be on top of the next $3 million allocation.

“Not saying that was done unjustly, but we just didn’t know,” he said. “So now that we know, we’ll be more proactive.”

What’s more, the committee is still figuring out how it will operate. It doesn’t yet have bylaws, is still figuring out which Erie County staff will assist with its work, and only on Monday established when its future meetings will take place. 

The committee agreed to meet on the second Monday of each month. The location of the meetings may vary. So far, meetings have been held at either 9 a.m. or 11 a.m. Meeting documents are posted on the Buffalo Bills’ website.

Several board members Monday said they trusted that the Bills spent the first $3 million wisely and that they would begin to work together to make specific recommendations for where future allocations should go. Under the agreement, the Bills hold and control all of the CBA funds, but spend them based on the recommendations of the oversight committee. 

That arrangement was established, County Executive Mark Poloncarz has said, to allow the Bills to use the CBA spending as a tax write-off. At the time the agreement was signed, experts were critical that the oversight committee had no staff or budget of its own, and that the agreement did not stipulate specific projects that the money would be spent on.

CBAs in other cities, experts noted, list specific projects and programs that a professional sports team would fund in exchange for the public financial support. The NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers, for example, agreed to fund affordable housing, college scholarships and a library, while a Nashville CBA stipulated that affordable housing and childcare facilities be built on the site of a Major League Soccer stadium. In Pittsburgh, the NHL’s Penguins put $1 million toward a grocery store in a historically Black neighborhood.


 

The Community Benefits Oversight Committee meets Monday at downtown public library. Photo by J. Dale Shoemaker.


Franchelle Parker, a member of the oversight committee and the executive director of Open Buffalo, said she’d like to see the money help the city’s youth, be that through school supplies, job training programs or direct stipends. 

“There were some kinks in the beginning,” she said. “But hopefully, we get to a place where the money is going to where the people are hurting.”

Blue and other committee members said they want to see more community involvement at their meetings so they can hear where residents want the Bills to spend the money. Parker suggested handing out fliers advertising the meetings where young people hang out, while one pastor who attended the meeting suggested using radio programs to get the word out. Monday’s meeting was advertised in newspapers, at the county building, at two ECC campuses and on the Buffalo Bills’ website.


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“This all needs to evolve publicly so that the community can see it evolve and, where necessary, criticize, comment, applaud,” Toth said. “Everybody can watch this evolve, and we’ll all be surprised at certain moments, and hopefully proud when it’s all done.”

Also at Monday’s meeting, the Bills relayed that the team is largely on track with the CBA stipulations that they employ women and people of color, as well as women- and minority-owned businesses on the stadium construction project. In terms of workers, Semaia said more than 20 percent of hours have been worked by minority employees, beating a 15 percent goal and that apprentices have done 13.6 percent of the work, beating a 10 percent goal. Women have done 4.8 percent of the work, falling just under a 5 percent goal, he said.

In terms of business, Semaia said minority-owned businesses have won 17.4 percent of the first two rounds of contracts, beating a 15 percent goal while women-owned businesses won 8.4 percent of contracts, falling short of a 15 percent goal. Only 3.1 percent of work has gone to businesses owned by service-disabled veterans, falling short of a 6 percent goal.

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