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Give 'Em Something to Talk About: Outer Harbor Stadium

A rendering by HKS Inc., a leading designer and builder of sports stadiums, of a new stadium complex proposed for Buffalo's Outer Harbor.

You don’t need us to tell you about the new proposal, unveiled at Tuesday’s Committee on Community Development meeting in Buffalo’s Common Council chambers, for a $1.4 billion multi-use sports stadium with a retractable roof, a convention center and hotel, and sports museum on the city’s Outer Harbor. The news is everywhere; cynicism and optimism are let loose upon the region. The proposal excites well-guarded prejudices and animosities that have no place in the conversation: After Tuesday’s hearing, I listened to a proponent argue that “the preservationists” would surely scuttle the deal, although the Outer Harbor is essentially devoid of any structures to preserve. Outside Common Council chambers, another fellow shot the proposal through the heart with the dismissive phrase “silver bullet.”

The project is advanced by Greater Buffalo Sports & Entertainment Complex LLC, whose principals are George Hasiotis and Nicholas Stracick. Hasiotis, a local businessman and a former commissioner of the Erie County Water Authority, has been working with Stracick, a former Major League Baseball umpire, for five years to develop a proposal for a new downtown stadium for the Buffalo Bills. First they considered the Central Terminal site, but the NFL demurred. They then turned to the Outer Harbor, and, they say, the NFL is interested. The complex would occupy about 100 acres; the rest of the NFTA land, about 300 acres, would be parkland. Rochester’s Strong Museum would develop a sports museum near the Small Boat Harbor.

It is still early days for this proposal, the funding for which includes a 30 percent public share for infrastructure and tax abatements. Governor Andrew Cuomo, who must be onboard if the project is to go anywhere, has not weighed in. (Cuomo’s emissary in Western New York, Sam Hoyt, did not give much weight to the idea in a conversation last week.) The Bills have not yet been presented the plan. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, who is negotiating with the Buffalo Bills and Cuomo for a new lease at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, which will be contingent on the state and county pouring at least $100 million and probably $200 million into refurbishments there, is not warm to the idea. Neither is Congressman Brian Higgins, who prefers that the NFTA transfer the land in question to the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation, a state entity, instead of the City of Buffalo, which is what Hasiotis says the NFL would prefer. (This is purportedly the reason that Mayor Byron Brown and his allies on the Common Council are seeking ownership of the NFTA’s Outer Harbor property, though both Brown and councilmembers were cautious in their embrace of the idea on Tuesday.) Beyond political and economic policy questions, there are environmental and transportation considerations, as well as a snake’s nest of competing developers whose interests along the waterfront and in the neighboring Old First Ward will have to be negotiated.

The heart of the pitch presented on Tuesday by the academic, businesslike Hasiotis and the irascible Stracick is this: Western New York’s political leaders will devote public money to retaining the Bills over the next 10 years. (Left unsaid was that it doesn’t matter whether public subsidies for stadiums and professional sports are good economic policy; those in positions of leadership will refuse to accept responsibility for the loss of the Bills, should the owners who succeed the aged Ralph Wilson decide to move them. So public money will be spent to prevent that from happening.) The NFL, they say, is not interested in perpetuating the life of the aging stadium in Orchard Park. But if the community and its political leadership invest in a new, modern stadium, the NFL—which must approve any effort to move a team from one city to another—will guarantee that the Bills stay put for a long time. The NFL will also, according to Hasiotis, schedule a Super Bowl in the new stadium within a few years of its opening.

So, argue Hasiotis and Stracick, why spend $200 million in public money on the existing stadium in an effort to retain the Bills, when the NFL will attach no guarantees to that investment? Why not instead find $400 million in public money—somehow, somewhere—and get the NFL’s guarantee that the team’s next owners will not be allowed to move the team in the near future, while at the same time initiating massive development in the Outer Harbor and the Ohio Street corridor, upgrading the city’s convention-hosting facilities, and creating thousands of union jobs during the five-year buildout?

If we concede that public money will be spent to hold on to the Buffalo Bills—a team under what amounts to lame-duck ownership, given Wilson’s advanced years and his family’s lack of interest in owning an NFL franchise—that is a question worth turning over. Maybe that conversation leads to support for a new stadium, maybe not. Maybe it leads to a dismissal of the question’s premise, and the conclusion that Buffalo can do just fine without a professional football team.

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