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Public funds for stadium demands public approval

The Pegulas’s ask for at least $1 billion to build a new football palace next to the existing palace in Orchard Park makes us want to shout. That figure is double what the county makes on sales tax revenue — its main source of revenue — annually. At the individual level, it represents a $1,500 burden on each Erie County taxpayer. We’d be essentially leasing the stadium for free to a couple worth over $5 billion, paying its maintenance costs and taking little part in the considerable profits.

Since the Pegulas bought the Bills in 2014, the estimated franchise value of the Bills has increased more than $100 million — per year. A source close to the Bills admitted to the Buffalo News that “pro sports stadiums, from a purely economic model factoring in stadium costs, can be revenue-neutral at best and not a major driver of new jobs, especially if a pro team is already in the community.”

To paraphrase the author Rick Riordan, they ask much, and they presume much. They ask us to cover the costs of their operation (the building and maintenance of a stadium) while they control the upside (the profit). They presume they can, because the finite number of NFL teams means that each franchise usually has another city willing to give them more taxpayer money (similar to how other corporations exploit differing tax rates and labor conditions to get cities/states/countries to give them more money to relocate there).

Before this goes any further, let it be noted that many of us are Bills and sports fans. Teams are valuable sources of unity. They do have value outside of pure economic terms. However, I wouldn’t want to subsidize another person’s hobby to the tune of $1,500. We won’t ask non-sports Buffalonians to subsidize ours. Sports are a big part of many of our lives, but they shouldn’t be prioritized over art, science and other worthy pursuits.

NFL Commissioner Goodell in 2019 recognized that different markets need different stadiums and that Bills fans are unique, while then drawing the conclusion that Bills fans are the generic type that need “more technology and more of the things that will bring them out of their homes to go to a football game.” To these Bills fans, tailgating and good teams bring us to the stadium, not better wifi and nicer seats.

Speaking of comparisons, three NFL teams have relocated in this century. All three had formerly played in Los Angeles, and two relocated back there. The third moved to Las Vegas. They most likely take Los Angeles and Las Vegas out of the running, and all three were in worse situations than Buffalo before their move.

The former Oakland Raiders had a terrible fanbase, a decrepit stadium (which they shared with Oakland’s baseball team), and a competing — and much more successful — club across the bay in San Francisco. They represent the danger of stonewalling an owner; Nevada ponied up $750 million in public funding for a stadium in Las Vegas and the team moved there in 2020. But their lower attendance and worse stadium render them a poor comparison to Buffalo.

Take San Diego’s 2016 rejection of public funding for a new Chargers stadium. Needing a two-thirds majority to put $1.15 billion towards a new stadium, just 43% voted for the measure. They were blocked by other NFL owners from moving to a suburb of Los Angeles, though their eventual move to a stadium shared with the Los Angeles Rams was approved by the requisite three-quarters of owners.

San Diego was done in by the ability of their owner to go in with the Rams on a new stadium. No pairing is readily available for the Pegulas, and they can’t take for granted that their move to a desirable city would be okayed by other owners wary of losing that city as leverage in their own stadium fights.

Before the Rams moved back to Los Angeles in 2015, their owner had already purchased a $100 million plot of land in Inglewood, California (to be used for a Walmart supercenter, as he’s married to a Walton). When St. Louis voters refused to fund $700 million in renovations to their stadium, the ties of both the franchise and owner to Los Angeles made a move there inevitable. L.A. had long been used as leverage for other teams to strong-arm their cities into building new stadiums, and the Rams finally cashed in.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz reports in his book that, based on Erie County Department of Public Works estimates, Highmark Stadium could last until 2040 before its structural integrity is compromised. As he notes, open-air stadiums designed explicitly for football last longer than domed, dual-purpose stadiums. While Oakland, San Diego and St. Louis’s stadiums were open-air, they were all dual-purpose. Buffalo’s is both open-air and made only for football. What is now Highmark Stadium was built 50 feet in the ground, with great sightlines and a large seating capacity for its era, adding to its structural and economic vitality.

Other NFL owners will be wary of losing Buffalo as a franchise because relocation will take yet another city off the table while permanently ending Buffalo as a future option. Among the three recent relocators, only San Diego had nearly as much history in their city as the Bills do. The Bills’ fanbase is only so large despite its small population because of its history. Yanking them out amputates that legacy, making Buffalo nonviable as a potential relocation for other teams — meaning less leverage for owners.

By all accounts, Bills players enjoy playing and living here. Buffalo’s relatively small size but outsized focus on football means stars like Josh Allen — now under contract through 2028 — get to be bonafide celebrities. Moving to, for example, Texas would allow them to save a bunch on income tax, but Buffalo is much cheaper to live in than most cities, and the commute is much easier. The players would likely be on our side in negotiations.

While the Pegulas’s ventures in Buffalo make them somewhat invested in Erie County, Poloncarz has repeatedly tied his legacy to that of the Bills. He hemorrhages leverage when he connects so totally the success of government to that of a private organization.

Poloncarz’s third term expires December 2023 — six months after the Bills’ lease is up — but the Democratic primary is June 2023 — a month before the lease is up. At best, he’ll be in the midst of campaign season. At worst, he’ll have lost the primary and be a lame-duck point man for one of the biggest economic and cultural decisions of the decade. At the same time, we can’t afford to have the county executive election be a referendum on the Bills.

That’s why we need a literal referendum. Given the timing of the county executive campaign and the deep-throated support of other public officials — such as Pat Burke, the state assemblyman representing Orchard Park — for the Bills and the aversion to losing them, this issue calls for direct involvement by the public. And considering the need for approval to relocate by three-quarters of NFL owners, the existence of a viable stadium and the danger for the NFL in losing Buffalo’s fanbase, Erie County voters have more leverage than recent cities that lost teams.

A referendum also better represents public opinion. They aren’t to be used on every issue, but this is a behemoth. Bills fans are loud by nature, so their voices must not be overestimated by public officials. There may be many people opposed to public funding who are hesitant to voice that opinion. They shouldn’t need to shout to be heard.

The Legislature recently passed a bill forcing a 30-day public comment period between submission of a potential lease agreement to the legislature and their voting on it. This is a good step to prevent the last-minute passage of 2013’s lease deal, but we need to go further.

The home rule chapter (Ch. 36-A Art. 3 § 24 (2)(j)(1)) of the New York Consolidated Laws provides that a local referendum can be called on “a local law relating to apportionment” by a number of voters equal to five percent of turnout for the most recent gubernatorial election (currently 17,298 for Erie County) or 15,000, whichever is lower, or by the local legislature itself.

Despite New York State being involved, the outcome of a county referendum would allow or deny enough money that it would determine the outcome of the stadium deal. New York can’t and won’t go it without Erie County. The decision Erie County officials must make is whether they will go it without their voters.

Setting the referendum for 2022, besides coinciding with the Congressional midterms to increase turnout, gives Poloncarz time to get the best deal possible while concluding negotiations before campaign season kicks off. He, the Bills and the state will have to negotiate the exact county contribution that is put up for a vote, but the lower the proposed public funding, the more likely the measure is to pass.

If the Pegulas don’t have to pay for the stadium, they are even less invested in keeping the Bills here. The only way we should support any public funding is if they agree to keep the Bills in Buffalo for at least fifty years, which is how old the current stadium is and at least how long a new stadium should last. No annual opt-out clauses like in past deals. No buyout provisions.

To New York and Erie County officials: take the lose-lose of either ponying up for the Pegulas or potentially losing the Bills forever, and instead take the pressure off your shoulders while scoring a for-the-people PR win by setting a referendum.

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