The Buffalo Waterfront Stadium: In Defense of Skepticism

We will operate here under the assumption that everyone wants the Bills to stay in the area. You don’t have to be a football fan or have a #billsmafia on your Twitter avatar to understand that the Bills are an economic engine, a source of civic pride, and a symbol of good days passed, and hope for the future.  Even if I am dismissive of throwing a billion dollars at a game of catch, that doesn’t mean I want Ralph’s post-concussion-syndrome follies to move to Los Angeles. 

Yesterday, Chris Smith and Brad Riter led the cheer for the $1.4 billion “conversation starter” stadium proposal. If you missed it over at Trending Buffalo, listen here right now

TBOneThing10-24-12.mp3

OK. 

Would that replication of Singapore – a gleaming new Asian Tiger of a Buffalo downtown be great to build on Lake Erie? Sure. Would a new stadium complex that involves the construction of about six bridges, the redevelopment of tainted land, nestled alongside the flour and cereal processors be nice? Sure; that would be great. Would it be fantastic if the Buffalo Bills stayed here in perpetuity, playing in a state-of-the-art stadium? Of course it would.  

We are, however, in “would be nice” territory, and decidedly removed from “must happen”. 

And we’re talking about a city that – over 20 years – can’t get it together to expand the Peace Bridge or its plaza, for considerably less money. 

Even if you argue – as both Brad and Chris do – that a new stadium is the sine qua non – the “must happen” of the Bills’ continued existence in western New York, why does it have to involve everything contained within the Greater Buffalo Sports and Entertainment Center (hereinafter “GBSEC”) proposal?  Why are we building a new home for the Jetsons when what we really need is a less crappy stadium with a dome to keep out the weather, and nicer toilets? As much as it makes sense to appeal to fans, you have to also appeal to people who don’t care. 

We’re a small town with small money. Propose away, but the scale of GBSEC’s proposal is way outside the “reasonable” scale.

Click to enlarge

 Brad’s opening premise is that it makes more sense to spend $1.4 billion on a new stadium than $200 million on the Ralph. That’s great, except we’re talking about fantasy-dollars; dollars no one has. 

First, GBSEC spends several pages’ worth of its presentation creating a whole new downtown, connected to the existing one. We already have a downtown. No one much likes it, and no one much goes there, except for court, the Sabres, and the theater. Would building a sur-downtown have a stimulative effect on the existing one? It would, if the proponents of Mos Eisley-on-the-Lake didn’t factor in the current state of downtown’s ridiculous parking supply into its plan. It doesn’t assume – it doesn’t much allow – our current downtown to change. Much simpler and cheaper would be to let our existing downtown grow organically by giving it a competitive advantage; say, a sales-tax free zone. 

Secondly, the Bills already have a stadium. I’ve never been in it, so I’ll take Brad’s word for it that it’s really awful. We’re also having a hard time filling it, partly because the team tends to be horrible, but also because of demographics and economics. The region is shrinking. Things like high gas prices take a bite out of people’s discretionary budgets, and it’s harder to add “game” to “food” and “utilities”. We’re having quite the civic discussion over spending $200 million – a teeny drop in the GBSEC bucket – to fix the Ralph up and make it less horrible.  Notwithstanding the assumption I propose above, a lot of people would rather see the Bills leave than assign public money to this idea. The Buffalo Bills NFL franchise is worth almost a billion dollars. Its owner is in his 90s, and recently becomes unwell with greater frequency. It’s a hard sell to tell a blue-collar, hardworking, shrinking region that a billion-dollar business needs welfare to help build it a new home. 

If $200 million is a tough sell, who swoops in and says, “$1.4 billion’ll do the trick!”?  Of course, we’re assuming there will be some outlay of public money for this because that’s how these things go. If the state and county don’t play ball, some other city will offer up a much sweeter pot; backyard deers or no.

We talk about the megaregion as being the key to the Bills’ continued viability here, and locating in WNY is geographically the least-inconvenient place. But how much is Rogers going to put up? How much is the Government of Ontario or Canada’s Federal Government going to put up to keep this megaregional asset in WNY? How much is Monroe County going to contribute? What about Niagara County? Why do Erie County taxpayers shoulder such a large fiscal burden for what’s being billed as a multinational attraction? Also, has Toronto really bought into being Bills country? How are tickets selling at the Rogers Centre, another Great Lakes retractable-roof location that had the good fortune to locate itself in an existing urban downtown? 

Brad and Chris say this all is starting a conversation. But you start conversations by saying, “what if we built them a new, domed stadium in Orchard Park”. Then the conversation may – or may not – progress to, “hey, how about a stadium with a retractable roof on the Outer Harbor. It would cost [insert reasonable, sub-billion-dollar figure here].” Then you expand, and move on to alternate ideas – siting it in Niagara County to be closer to Rochester and Toronto, for example. Perhaps then you suggest coupling the project – wherever it is – with a new, less horrible convention center and maybe a hotel. 

Even if the project GBSEC proposed had contained only a stadium, hotel, and convention center, it would be something within the world of reason. But you have to convince people of the underlying premise before you throw this whole new city at them. 

In the podcast, Brad argues that we oughtn’t compare the Bills proposal to what happened in New York and Dallas. Why not? Maybe because the markets are so different, but the dollar figures are quite similar.

The new Yankee Stadium, which houses the wealthiest, most successful sports franchise in America, cost $1.5 billion. The new Citi Field in Queens, which hosts the New York Mets, cost $850 million, paid through the sale of New York City bonds, to be repaid by the Mets with interest in lieu of property taxes. The home of two teams – the Jets and Giants – cost $1.6 billion and was the most expensive domestic stadium, ever. So, lets understand that what GBSEC is proposing is on a par with what happened in New York. Dallas?  Dallas’ Cowboy Stadium cost $1.4 billion in 2012 dollars

By contrast, Green Bay’s municipally owned Lambeau Field is ancient and was renovated a couple of years ago for less than $300 million. It’s still going strong in a small-town market, mostly because the team is owned by the community. 

The difference, of course, is that Dallas-Fort Worth and the New York tristate area are already large, interconnected economic regions. The Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex boasts 6.5 million people across 13 counties. The New York tristate area has about 20 million people within its immediate, contiguous metropolitan area. All of these metros have the added benefit of being located within the same nation-state. 

Even if one were to make the argument that a billion-plus dollar megaplex on Lake Erie could be a centerpiece to finally recognize the interdependency of a Tor-Buff-Chester metropolitan area, it would be superficial, at best.  The fact is that these are neither politically nor geographically contiguous areas, spanning two countries and three major media markets. Even Tor-Buff-Chester itself is a different concept altogether. It’s a megaregion like Boston-New York-Washington, not its own metro. Back in 2007, Richard Florida estimated that the megaregion he defines had about 22 million people in it, strewn across a geography from Quebec City to Syracuse to London, ON. That’s quite a spread. 

How credible is this plan? Brad and Chris argue that George Hasiotis is a respected businessguy who is well-connected politically. He is. Some point to the fact that GBSEC honcho Nicholas Stracick won a $240 million judgment against Disney, and must be flush with cash. That’s until you realize that he split the money with someone else. After taxes. And after they settled for a much smaller amount from Disney to avoid the verdict going up on appeal.  

Indeed, Stracick has already recommended that Andrew Cuomo’s billion dollars for Buffalo be spent towards this plan. A $1 billion fund that’s supposed to set the region up for a 21st century economy – should it be spent on an entertainment zone? 

Why can’t it happen? Anything can happen. Someone could swoop in tomorrow with no backing and a set of nice pictures and propose a building taller than the Burj Khalifa be built on the Outer Harbor. Or maybe a charismatic Iraqi-British con artist could swoop into town to promise to renovate a beloved grande dame of a building, despite having never really developed anything to completion, anywhere. People are skeptical about this because its outlandishness, and Buffalo’s experience, gives people a fundamental right to be suspicious and skeptical. It involves a couple of unknowns who had the cash to commission expensive plans and diagrams. It involves politics and politicians, which means you have to question everyone’s motives ab initio. A $250,000 investment in HKS diagrams isn’t a lot when control over this waterfront property is at stake and being argued about; the NFTA is playing a massive game of keepaway between the city and the state/Canalside. 

If you like the idea of a waterfront retractable-roof stadium, I’m with you. If you like it being paired with a hotel and a new convention center, I’ll go along with that. But when you basically propose taking the area around General Mills and suggest building a new Shinjuku district, we have a problem. 

If Citi Field can be built on some of the most expensive real estate in the country for $850 million, I have a hard time believing that it costs almost twice that to build three things on a barren piece of wasteland on Buffalo’s Outer Harbor. 

26 comments

  • I wonder how many readers know what “GBSEC” stands for. It’s used about 5 times. If I believed that Buffalo could find a Billion+ dollars to build some fantasy stadium on the waterfront, I would take the time to find out what the acronym stood for but I don’t so I won’t.  I’ll  leave this discussion to the insiders and their codes.

    • Can you honestly not figure it out from the context? Are you honestly going to argue over an acronym as your only response to this entire, lengthy post?

      •  Do I really need to refer you to a style manual?  If the reference is readily known, such as FBI or USA, there is no need to spell it out. If it’s not known, however, then  spell it out, thereafter you can  use the abbreviation.  Do not force the reader to “figure it out”.    (see 9th grade composition)

        • It’s the name of the proposed complex… The Greater Buffalo Sports and Entertainment Center (GBSEC). It’s been used over and over again all week. And I have to agree with the others… what does it matter? And if you took the time to post  a ridiculous comment then you can take 3 seconds to Google the acronym. 

          •  Okay, I wasted my time attempting to google it.  It wasn’t  in “Gordon’s Bay Security” or “GBS Wireless”, or the next  25 references,  so I quit.  Like Mr. Page said – poor writing. And lazy.

          • It’s easy if you know how to use Google search engines. Simply paste GBSEC and click on “News” off to the left. FYI- Erie County public libraries offer free basic computer and internet how to classes.

          • If the reader needs to take a course  in order to  understand the writer, its the writer who  needs help.  Don’t blame the reader for lazy writing.

          • OK. But now that we all know what it means we can move on.

          •  You asked, I’ll answer.  99% of the readers have no idea what that  acronym stands for, so when they encounter it, they’re as lost as I was.  If you want your audience to understand you, stop writing for a small group of insiders and write for the general public.  Style manuals serve  a good purpose. Choose one and follow it. ( I know – newbies want to be cool and ignore the rules.)  

          • If you expect all information to be spoon fed to you, and are unable to perform any work to clarify points with which you may be unclear, it’s possible that the Internet might not be the place for you. 

          •  Ahh, another member of the clique, ready to pounce  with the requisite high school snark.  What took you so long?

          • Not long, considering I responded to you hours ago. 

          • This entire argument is ridiculous.

          • And I’d hardly call Alan a lazy writer. Perhaps it was simply an oversight that he didn’t include the full name in the article somewhere. Or maybe he just assumed ppl knew since the acronym has been used in other articles on Artvoice. But to come away from the article with only the acronym in mind is puzzling to me.

          • You clearly have far too much free time on your hands.

        •  A style manual would state that an non-universally known acronym be defined the first time it’s used in an article/manuscript.  I had no idea what GBSEC was until Merce defined it

        • Hi, Clay. 

          There’s only one person in my 8-year history of writing this blog who has ever picked such relentless nits over style, and especially the use of acronyms/initials. That person is “BobbyCat”. Then I double-checked the IP addresses.  And also the fact that the email address “clay_blasdel” uses has been used before. 

          Hi, BobbyCat. 

          So, I have updated the post above to explain what the acronym is, and also to indicate to how it would henceforth be referred. I was tempted to delete this entire thread because it’s wholly off-topic and amounts to internet trolling (click the link). 

          Because, Clay/BobbyCat, you know or should know what GBSEC stands for. You left a comment on the post that introduced GBSEC and its plan to Buffalo. Presumably, you read that post before leaving the comment, and you’re therefore not really puzzled as to what those initials stand for, or to what they refer. You also commented at Trending Buffalo. You’ve been right on top of this particular issue.

          Furthermore, it is completely irrelevant within the context of a 1700-word post what GBSEC stands for. I have clearly identified it as the entity that has been promoting this new stadium complex, and the comments section exists for you to offer up an opinion – one way or another – on the underlying point of what I wrote. While I certainly disagree with you that a 1700-word post is representative of “laziness”, as you describe it, I also note that you have offered up absolutely nothing in the way of constructive dialogue with respect to the underlying point. 

          Given that you’ve already read a post where GBSEC was identified, and its initials explained, this strikes me as particularly petty and silly. 

          You can complain about your difficulty in Googling it, you can moan about my laziness, you can lecture us all about what 99% of the readers know and don’t know, and then devolve into silly arguments with people making quite valid points. None of that matters. 

          What matters is that you already read an article that explained what GBSEC stands for, and this is simply trolling. Enjoy the rest of your day. 

          • You failed to include the definition of an “Internet Troll”

            via Urban Dictionary: internet troll: A person whose sole purpose in life is to seek out people to argue with on the internet over extremely trivial issues. Such arguments can happen on blogs, Facebook, Myspace and a host of others.

          •  This interbreeding on these Buffalo blogs is like some backwoods hollow  in the Ozarks. Everyone is everybody’s cousin.  I swear everyone is paranoid.  I really didn’t know what the acronym stood for, and niether did most others, I’m sure. 

            I last visited this kind of closed society about a year or two ago.  Nothing has changed.  A handful of bloggers – the same usual suspects are answering each others posts, chatting amongst themselves. When a stranger rides into town with some new fangled idea like – more clarity please- he townsfolk pull down the shades.  And the knives come out.  It’s pathetic.  It’s high school snark all over again.  And you know, I don’t care what you think.  I left most of my smarmy  insults in a trunk somewhere with my tie-dyed tees and sandals.  I won’t dig them out.  I moved on.

    • Does it make any difference if the entity is referred to as GBSEC, LMNOP, or HJYKJH:TLAHT*##%)&*%) ? The point of the discussion doesn’t change. 

  • They could offer to build a stadium out of solid gold…the Bills will still have no interest. Once Ralph passes away, some really wealthy guy (or group of guys) is going to make one of the best value buys ever. Buy the Bills at their current market value, move them to L.A., and watch their value almost double.

    We’re just not the city we were in 1960, especially relative to the other mid-to-large cities in the country. We’re no longer an NFL-sized city. We’re perfect for NHL and AAA baseball, but not the NFL.

    •  I have to take issue with this notion that the reason why the Bills will move and that we should accept it is that Buffalo is no longer an NFL sized city and therefore the team will logically move to Los Angeles.

      I am using wikipedia list of largest metropolitan statistical areas in the United States for this post.

      Buffalo is listed as the 49th largest MSA here. Clearly we are not in the top 32. Also, NYC has two teams so if we wanted to be an “NFL sized city” we would need to be in the top 31. The problem with this idea is that there are a number of teams beyond the top 31 MSAs that have teams and a few within the top 31 without teams. Los Angeles, Portland OR, San Antonio TX, Orlando Fl, Las Vegas, San Jose, and Columbus OH (number 32) are all places in the top 31 or 32 for total population without a football team.

      Indianapolis, Nashville, Jacksonville, New Orleans, Buffalo, and Green Bay are all teams beyond the top 31 or 32 largest MSAs by population.

      If we say that Buffalo is no longer an NFL sized city and therefore the Bills will move, then we must be EXPECTING that these other teams will move from their small cities as well. I do not expect Indianapolis, Nashville, New Orleans or Green Bay (clearly a unique case with their fan ownership of the franchise) to lose their teams.

      I think the problem with the Bills is not the corporate sponsorship potential or our stadium, it is that the team has not been good since 1999. The problem with the size of the city argument is that small cities’ teams have won a lot of Superbowls in the past 10 plus years. Why were the Colts good for the past decade? Peyton Manning and Bill Polian. How did the Saints win the Superbowl? Drew Brees. Green Bay? They had Brett Farve followed by Aaron Rodgers, the highest rated quarterback of all time.

      The reason the team has not been good is because it is run by Ralph Wilson Jr. He is too old to be the person with the ultimate say over an NFL franchise. What other business in the world would you expect to succeed with the same boss since 1960?

      We need a new owner, but not a new everything else. And Rocco Termini suggesting the Bills should move to Hamilton ON because they would be more profitable there? Do Bills fans care about how profitable the team is? Indirectly yes I suppose because profit must be a little related to success on the field, but a good football team is always going to be profitable. Hell, in Buffalo a bad football team has been profitable. We do not care about profitability, we want the damn team to stay here and win a Superbowl.

  • I don’t get how the team needs a new stadium.  The “problem” isn’t that the current stadium is old, but that the area has too few people/companies capable of buying the high priced seats and suites and buying sponsorships. 

    We should also keep in mind that there isn’t actually a problem at all.  The Bills are a massive financial success.  A $25 K investment in 1960 is now worth $800 million.  What we’re talking about is rich people threatening to harm us all because the team isn’t more massively successful. 
     

  • Are the Bills really an economic positive to the region?  All I hear about is the county continually throwing money at the team for any number of reasons (up to renovating the Ralph) and providing resources (police, etc) to manage the area around the stadium. 

     It’s obvious Wilson doesn’t care about the team or the region so why should we care about the Bills. You can point to our regional pride and the teams history but without an owner with pride in their own team it’s meaningless.  Unless some big name player talk of keeping the team here and doing good things (real talk, not the typical unicorn and rainbows Buffalo talk), then let the team go.  It’s obvious or small market is getting smaller and doesn’t fit in with the NFL’s goals. 

  • Once again, I’ll say it: if we want a vibrant, year-round waterfront, the last thing that should be placed there is a massive stadium that will only be used for about 15 days a year.  The idea of a waterfront stadium is a favorite meme among both armchair quarterbacks and armchair planners, but it’s far down on the list of highest and best uses for the land.

    Want to blow big bucks on a new stadium?  There’s much better locations.  The Lower East Side, if we can get past the barrier of clearing the remaining “authentic” cottages from a section of its growing urban prairie.  The Thruway Plaza site in Cheektowaga, close to the 90 and equidistant between the Northtowns and Southtowns, in a town whose solidly blue-collar population forms the core of the Bills’  fan base.  Any of a hundred landfills in Niagara Falls, which makes it a shorter drive for Canadian fans, and for Northtowners, closer than the Ralph.   UB North Campus, where there’s vast seas of surface parking, and the facility can actually see some shared use.

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