A generational decision faces this community
By Andrew Kulyk
The Buffalo Bills and the Western New York community are careening with great speed towards a deal that will see a new stadium for the NFL Buffalo Bills and a fateful decision that will seemingly assure the Bills future here in Buffalo for the next generation, yet will have impacts and consequences for years and decades to come.
I watch the events and announcements of the past few months with astonishment and awe. How the Bills signed a 10-year lease in 2013, everyone knowing that “The Ralph” was not destined to be the permanent long term fix for the team, but instead a chance to buy this community time so that the team, the government, the private sector, and the citizens and stakeholders could together come up with the path that would best suit this region.
My name is Andrew Kulyk. My friend and sports travel partner Peter Farrell, and I have executed a travel project which we dub “The Ultimate Sports Road Trip”. Starting in 1998 our core mission was to attend a home game of each of what was then 121 sports teams representing the four major North American sports. We hit that finish line in December of 2002, becoming what was at the time the first known sports enthusiasts to accomplish such a feat.
Since that time, the roster of 4 sports teams has grown to 124 franchises and a number of teams have either relocated to new cities or moved into new venues. We have returned to attend games at their new digs on 48 occasions, the most recent ones being the new NFL stadiums in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. In the coming weeks, we will be visiting the two new NHL arenas in New York and Seattle, and our core quest will once again be complete – membership in what is now a growing community called #Club124, and bragging rights to having seen a home game of all 124 teams in their current and active venues.
It doesn’t stop there… we have attended games in over 50 NCAA division 1 college football stadiums. We have visited 150 minor league baseball ballparks and over 90 minor league and junior hockey arenas. We have made an annual trek to a March Madness site for college basketball subregionals. We have traveled to Europe. On several occasions… The NFL in London. The Premier League. The Bundesliga. The Euro 2016 soccer championships. We traveled to Mannheim and Berlin and Helsinki and Stockholm on two separate trips to follow the Buffalo Sabres and cover the experience for our media gig here at Artvoice. We ran into both of you in the media hospitality area at the Adler Mannheim practice facility that morning the Sabres were holding a morning skate for the local fans. We gleefully showed you pictures we had taken a day earlier at a Bundesliga match of the Hanover 96 soccer team. The pictures were of fans lighting flares in the stands and that seemed to be a “wow factor” for you.
In total, as of this writing, we have set foot in 563 separate stadiums and stades, arenas, centers and centres, ballparks, and pitches worldwide during the course of almost 24 years since starting this quest.
As a result of our travels, we have learned a thing or two or three when it comes to sports venues. What works and what doesn’t in terms of location, of architecture, of transportation and public transit, of technology, of concourse design, of food and drink, of the game-day fan experience. Of course, we are very invested in the fortunes of our Buffalo sports teams and wear the team crests proudly. I was a long-time Sabres season ticket holder going back to our family seats in the Upper Blues at the Aud. Peter is a Bills season ticket holder with seats in the clubs. We are also avid baseball fans and regulars at Buffalo Bisons games.
As we watch these negotiations unfold between yourselves and the state, we can only come to one inescapable conclusion… replacing Highmark Stadium with a newer, shinier open-air stadium on the Orchard Park footprint will be a huge mistake, a generational mistake, and one that this community, and eventually the team, will rue for decades to come. And I write this column to you to offer my voice to ask that you reconsider, that you keep the timetable moving, yet engage the stakeholders within the community, businesses, your fans and customers, and representatives in government, to open the discussion to bringing the Bills back to where they rightfully belong – in the City of Buffalo, playing in a venue befitting the NFL and what this generation of stadiums has become, and matching the aspirational goals of a city that is finally coming back after decades of decline.
To fully understand what has brought us to this point, one needs to look back at history, and how the Bills came to be in Orchard Park, The team began play in 1960 at War Memorial Stadium, affectionately referred to as “The Old Rockpile”, but for those of us old of us to remember actually going there, words can only begin to describe what a crumbling, derelict venue that was to experience and at which to attend a game.
In the late 60s, an investment group from Houston, well experienced in bringing their magnificent Astrodome to fruition, approached Buffalo with plans for a similar conceptual structure – a domed stadium that would be located at the Crossroads site at the foot of Main Street. The new stadium would be enclosed, multi-purpose, and would serve as the new home for both the Buffalo Bills and a new expansion MLB team which would call Buffalo home.
Bickering and cost overruns derailed the Buffalo plans. At the time people were fleeing the city because of ongoing urban decay and racial strife. A new plan was formed to site that same stadium in Lancaster, roughly three miles east of the airport. The county signed a contract with the Kenford Corporation. Excitement built that not only would we have a shiny new stadium, but one that matched Houston’s grandeur and fulfilling the dream of Major League Baseball for Buffalo, a dream that this city had aspired to for much of the 20th century.
Things quickly turned sour. A scandal erupted where two county legislators were accused (and later convicted) of selling their votes for the stadium in exchange for bribes. MLB spurned Buffalo at the last minute, awarding the two expansion teams to San Diego and Montreal. And amidst all the stink and chaos, Bills owner Ralph Wilson announced that he no longer wanted to play in a dome, he wanted an open air stadium (because that’s how football is meant to be played, sound familiar?) in the southtowns. Even 70,000 seats were not enough he wanted an 80,000 seat capacity. And he was fully prepared to pick up his team and move it to Seattle if he did not get his wishes. The county regrouped, the Legislature (minus the two guys who went to prison) approved bonds for $23-million to build an open-air stadium on county lands in Orchard Park. The Kenford Corporation sued, and eventually got a hefty settlement, for breaching the contract for the dome that was never to be. And a 25-year lease was signed with the Bills. Then “Rich Stadium” open its doors in 1973.
As Peter and I have continued our travels around the country and the world, our laser focus became the new NFL stadiums coming on the scene in this century. The first one to really grab our attention was Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, which opened in 2008.
Located on the fringes of downtown Indianapolis, that city has everything going for it that Buffalo wants to become. A central core with abundant shopping and retail, dozens of hotels and attractions, of course, the State Capitol, plenty of downtown housing, all of this which has this city alive and vibrant at any given time. Add the two major sports venues – the stadium and Bankers Life Fieldhouse, home of the NBA Indiana Pacers and an arena that personifies the religion of Indiana basketball and we have ranked as the best of the best in that sport. You have two major sports teams that add so much to the energy of this city. The stadium has not only a roof that retracts but also the end zone walls that can open up, offering resplendent views of the city. The facility is in use year-round and in fact, has hosted NCAA Final Fours and this past year even took the reins for portions of the NCAA March Madness tournament, which was moved completely to Indianapolis due to the pandemic. (We were there, and they nailed it, putting a great show for the fans even with all the Covid restrictions and vaccines just coming available.)
There have been others. Dallas’ AT&T Stadium, Atlanta’s Mercedes Benz Stadium, Minneapolis’ US Bank Stadium, Las Vegas’ Allegiant Stadium, and Los Angeles’ Sofi Stadium are all architectural wonders. Los Angeles in particular is a venue that dazzles the senses in every way and is like nothing we have experienced in our travels anyplace else.
Every time we set foot in one of these new stadiums, our eyes gaze wide in awe and wonder, and then we ask, “Why not Buffalo?”
Notice I didn’t mention the Arizona Cardinals, New York Jets, New York Giants or San Francisco 49ers on this list of new 21st century stadiums. Their new stadiums are nice, very nice. But in our view, sitting a stadium in the middle of nowhere, far away from their fan base populations, and offering little more in neighborhood vibe than oceans of parking, and in a couple of instances, access to public rail does little to make for an exceptional game day experience.
During the past decade, some major local initiatives and plans, many worthy of discussion and debate, were unveiled for Buffalo stakeholders to consider. In 2012 investors Nick Strascik and George Hasiotis showed us plans and a rendering for a retractable roof stadium on the Outer Harbor. While the proposal garnered more than its share of controversy and many questioned location and accessibility, what Strascik and Hasiotis did present was a unique financing arrangement that would largely incorporate stadium naming rights, concession rights, seat licenses, and revenue anticipation bonds to pay for the whole thing without the need for any major public funding. Sadly, Strascik died shortly after presenting his vision and the idea languished.
Developer Paul Ciminelli finally unveiled his ideas for a new stadium attached to Buffalo’s Central Terminal just this past year, a concept he and his company, Ciminelli Real Estate Corporation, had been percolating as far back as 2016. If built to fruition, this would instantly become one of the world’s iconic stadiums. Built into the concept would be light rail and commuter rail to ferry thousands of fans to the stadium on game day. Imagine condos in that tower, retail, a huge reset to a devastated neighborhood still housing the famed Broadway Market. His idea to flatten blocks and blocks of adjoining neighborhoods for 12,000 cars? No so good.
Here at Artvoice we favor what has come to be known as “The Artvoice Plan”. In 2014 we enlisted the service of respected architect Brad Wales, who not only envisioned a new stadium to be located in the Cobblestone district but presented a major redesign of downtown infrastructure that would remake parts of downtown Buffalo on a grand scale and leverage up to $6-bliion of new investment in the city. The cover story (which I penned) generated record hits, views, shares on social media, and triggered robust commentary and debate, much of it positive. With Ralph Wilson’s death that same year, the ownership of the team eventually reverting to you, and the team in year two of a ten-year lease at “The Ralph”, this community was chomping at the bit for a real and solid community discussion on the fate of the team and what a long term future would look like.
It never happened.
As part of the ten-year lease agreement, a new “Stadium Board” was empowered, consisting of 21 individuals – 7 from the team, 7 from the government, and 7 from the community. That body was empaneled with many appointed people who had no clue how to find the washroom at the stadium, much less offer meaningful input on a future plan for the Bills. They met all of one time, “received and filed” their mission statement required under the lease agreement and disbanded.
I thought many times why is there not more community urgency and discussion on this important matter? It takes 5-6 years to take an NFL stadium from concept to opening day. The Bills lease expires at the end of the 2022 season. The clock was ticking.
Incredibly, the conversation went cold. County Executive Mark Poloncarz offered absolutely nothing towards a proactive plan for the Bills. He spoke of the public not being able to tolerate “$100 steakhouses” in any new stadium, and repeatedly told his constituents that the current stadium is fine and there is no money for a new stadium and never will be. He wrote a self-promoting book describing his X’s and O’s in crafting the 2012 lease when he should have been jump-starting the process to engage the community in talks for a new stadium, and to go big.
Terry you were of no help or insight in this matter either. Now we are in years three and floor of the lease, and whenever asked about the long-term future of the Bills, you deflected. I know, because I raised my hand and asked you that very question at a press conference inside the atrium of the arena at a hockey-related event. To which you replied, “at the appropriate time we will begin planning for a new stadium”.
I guess that appropriate time is now, years and years later, with the Bills playing their last games under the current lease at Highmark Stadium in less than 12 months. And just like that, this matter has taken on a sense of urgency. The stadium must be in Orchard Park, it must be open air (“because that’s how football is meant to be played”), we must preserve tailgating because that is the signature of Bills Mafia, we must have a deal quickly because that was we can have the new place open in time for the 2026 season.
To all of this, I ask why, why, why.
A retractable roof stadium, whether here in the city or in Orchard Park, would add so much to the functionality and use of a stadium for so many different things. You have invested a quarter of a billion dollars into the services of a tremendously gifted quarterback, and then you put him out there to execute his skills under challenging circumstances.
Six of the nine home games have been played in bad weather this season alone. Not only is it a miserable game day experience for your customers, but your team has to adapt. Think the Bills lose that game against on Monday Night Football against New England last month if the weather is decent?
And just how many games have the Bills lost over these past 40 years which might have been won had the team not had to deal with the weather? Several stand out, none more so for me than opening day in 1979 when the Bills played in a monsoon against the Miami Dolphins. The Bills drove down to almost the goal line in the dying seconds, trailing by a point, only to have kicker John Leypoldt miss the chip shot field goal in a howling wind. And there was coach Don Shula (that generation’s version of the hated Bill Belichick), walking off our field with his usual smirk. The Bills, by the way, went 0 for 20 against the Dolphins in the 70s.
Then there is the matter of downtown. The South Park site offers so much in terms of accessibility to the fan base (including the many thousands that come from Canada, which saves those fans at least an hour of commute time round trip). There is an Amtrak rail line. There is our yes, much maligned Metrorail 6.5 mile subway, which would help immensely even under its current setup. Now imagine if we could at last jump-start the buildout of the airport line, the southtowns line, the Amherst extension. And what better time than right now, with billions upon billions of public money available thanks to the federal infrastructure bill.
The arguments against a downtown stadium that have been regurgitated over the years are specious, ridiculous, and easily debunked. “There is no parking!” In the 2014 Artvoice Plan, we counted 12,000 available parking spaces within ¾ of a mile of the Cobblestone footprint. Obviously, any stadium plan would add some parking structures and capacity to that number. “Traffic will be a nightmare!”. Traffic will be a “nightmare”, (and I use the term loosely) wherever you site any stadium. But a reminder that 60,000 people commute downtown and back home on any given workday, many traveling solo in their cars. Our network of highways handles all of it just fine. On game day, most will travel with cars filled, and then again there would be others who would use rail and Metrorail.
Lastly, “our tailgate traditions would be destroyed!”. To that I say… Rubbish! In the current configuration at Highmark Stadium, the tailgate experience is limited to those who have cars or campers and can drive. Other than a couple of bars and a convenience store nearby there are no other game day tailgate options for the game-day experience. Although the team and the county have taken great steps to curb rowdy behavior, to me Orchard Park tailgating is still largely a mix of excessive drinking, testosterone, misogyny, and an environment where setting oneself on fire, smashing through tables, squirting ketchup in some pagan ceremony, and stories like that poor kid who got beaten to a pulp by that rogue deputy sheriff, or the drunk fan found dead, face down in a nearby creek after a night game. If that’s tradition then I’m good with closing the book on that era of our team history and moving on to a new culture. And that culture begins downtown.
Again, Peter and I can cite many, many examples of what an NFL experience looks and feels like in peer cities. But the best example we can cite is from nearby Detroit.
After decades of playing in the suburban Silverdome way out in the suburb of Pontiac, the Detroit Lions moved downtown to Ford Field in 2002. Mind you, Pontiac was more of a wasteland than Orchard Park. This ugly yet utilitarian stadium was surrounded by absolutely nothing but hundreds of acres of parking. So of course, fans tailgated. And when they moved downtown this tailgate culture became lost amidst the high-rise buildings and landscape of downtown Detroit.
But water eventually found its level. Private surface lots began offering portable facilities and offering tailgate kits. Bars and restaurants set up tents and patio installations. Restaurants rolled out game day menus. Live music on stages. The Greektown Casino became a go-to pre and post-game destination and other businesses followed. The Market District, a collection of warehouses and structures not unlike our Cobblestone neighborhood, became the hot party area for Lions fans, with food trucks, restaurants, live bands, and yes, interspersed with parking lots for the grills and canopies. Sundays in downtown Detroit are fun again. And if you haven’t been there lately, Detroit is undergoing a huge renaissance. Condos, residences, hotels, even a new light rail line down Woodward Avenue, everything we aspire to. It’s right there. (And Little Caesars Arena, the home for the NHL Redwings and NBA Pistons is a true triumph. Go there. It’s the template that should be for the future of the KeyBank Center here in Buffalo. But that’s a column for another day).
Tailgating works in urban settings… In Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Detroit, Charlotte, Seattle, Denver, Los Angeles, Jacksonville. Ask the thousands of Bills fans who descended on downtown New Orleans this past Thanksgiving… did they need a 10 x 15 piece of asphalt in a parking lot, a grill, folding chairs, a cooler, and a canopy, to have fun?
We could have that here. We could have that much more here.
Astonishingly, our entire cadre of elected officials have abrogated their responsibility to be a voice for the community which demands more. Our governor, our congressman, our county executive, our mayor, our entire state assembly and senate delegation who apparently are cowering under their desks and letting their phones go to voice mail. At least our County Legislature and Common Council held hearings good for them. The vast majority of speakers and stakeholders who spoke voiced their preference for a downtown stadium.
Your own study commissioned through AECOM determined that a city stadium would provide more benefits than a stadium rebuild in the suburbs. Why are you dismissing their advice? All the plans included in this article including ours merits discussion and debate. Why are we not having this debate?
In recent weeks respected developer and businessman Rocco Termini partnered with local architect Benjamin Siegel to develop parameters for what a downtown stadium would look like and involve. Seven years after we presented the Artvoice Plan, their conclusions and assumptions in large part mirrored the conclusions we arrived at in our analyses. Termini and Siegel are spot on with their findings… why aren’t they being summoned to further explain their work in a bigger forum?
A generation ago, we built a bare-bones stadium in Orchard Park to accommodate a cadre of fans who were too scared to come into the city. A generation ago, we plowed under a Frederick Law Olmsted designed and inspired parkway to trench in a sunken expressway so commuters could flee to Cheektowaga and Amherst and Clarence and get there 8 minutes faster. Two generations ago we blacktopped yet another expressway through one of the most bucolic Olmsted parks and museum districts that we are so lucky to have and called it “The Scajaquada”. A generation ago we built a college campus out in Amherst in a swamp, all because young people were protesting the Vietnam War outside the Norton student union, and we had to design a new place which would make it difficult to gather (Mission accomplished, planners… UB North is as soulless and uninspiring as they come.)
Today we look back at those times in our history and we ask, “What were they thinking?”
Mark my words, come 2050, with $1.5-billion spent on a newer, smaller, shinier version of Highmark Stadium, sitting in the open, summoning day laborers and their shovels for $10 an hour after every lake effect storm, tailgaters marinating in their alcohol and stink, people will look back. They will look back on you, Terry and Kim. They will look back on our horrible assemblage of weak political leaders. And they will ask…”What were they thinking?”
Please reset this process, Kim and Terry Pegula. Let’s do this right. If it takes another year or two at Highmark Stadium so be it. Let’s build a stadium that will be a legacy to our future, that will inspire and embrace everything that we want Buffalo to be. The community is ready to assist you with that debate and discussion. Because no matter what our differences are, there is one constant… we all love the Bills and want to see them thrive here and be here forever.
And by the way, we here at Artvoice, still clutching our “Artvoice Plan”, are at the ready to contribute to that discussion