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



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.

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 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.