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Delay puts Buffalo Bills stadium lease in jeopardy

By Mark Gaughan

An inability to get the Cuomo administration to the negotiating table will cause the Buffalo Bills to miss a key deadline to get stadium funding next month from the National Football League.

The result is that the Bills will not be able to strike a lease deal with New York State and Erie County by the end of the year, as County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz was hoping.

In fact, the delay might prevent getting a deal done by the expiration of the current lease July 31 and force the team to seek a one-year interim lease agreement.

"We're well aware the negotiations are a process," Bills Chief Executive Officer Russ Brandon told The Buffalo News on Tuesday. "We also knew it would take time. They wouldn’t be completed overnight.

"But we are in a stalled holding pattern. We haven't met for some time."

The last meeting held among all three parties in the talks -– the Bills, and state and county officials -– was June 29. Three scheduled meetings since then were canceled or postponed, a source familiar with the talks told The News.

State officials dispute that they have not been actively involved recently, noting that a top lawyer for the state traveled to Buffalo in August to meet with key participants.

The Bills want improvements to Ralph Wilson Stadium that are expected to cost somewhere between $200 million and $220 million. The team wants state and local governments to pay a big portion of the bill. It’s expected the NFL would cover some of the cost –- $30 million to $40 million is considered a good estimate -– as it has done for other other teams.

The NFL has a "loan" program called G-4, under which the league would match, up to a certain amount, whatever figure the team contributes. 

The league has a fall meeting scheduled for Oct. 16 and 17 in Chicago at which G-4 funding for Buffalo could get approved. But to get on the agenda for that meeting, the Bills would need to present a plan to various league committees –- including the NFL Stadium Committee –- when those panels meet next week, Sept. 19 and 20, in New York City.

Brandon says that's not going to happen.

"The key point is we're going to miss committee meetings –- most notably the Stadium Committee meeting next week -– which will not allow us to be on the agenda for the October meeting," Brandon said. "So we can't reasonably expect to complete the process in time for the 2013 offseason schedule for potential work [on the stadium]."

Brandon would not say who was to blame for the canceled meetings.

"We really don't know why at this point," Brandon said. "We've been working day and night here on all of the preparation to have meaningful conversations that we have not had in over two months."

However, the Cuomo administration is the primary player on the government side because the state will be asked to fund the public-sector share of the major renovations, as it did 15 years ago.

Erie County is expected to continue paying for regular maintenance, annual upgrades, game-day expenses and other regular costs of running the stadium.

Asked about the canceled meetings, Poloncarz would only say: "There were a number of meetings that were scheduled that unfortunately could not be held due to conflicts of individuals attending. ... There's no meeting that was canceled because either I or a member of my staff was unavailable."

State officials disputed the characterization that its representatives have not been involved in working on the lease deal in recent months.

They pointed to separate meetings that a top sports industry attorney, Irwin P. Raij, had in Western New York with major players in the lease talks shortly after he was hired by the Cuomo administration in early August to advise the state on the lease negotiations and potential stadium renovations.

Raij, a partner with the law firm Foley & Lardner with extensive experience in stadium redevelopment, came to town during the week of Aug. 12 and met with county officials. He also toured Ralph Wilson Stadium and met with Bills representatives.

The state official said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has made the Bills negotiations a top priority within his administration and has recently asked Lt. Gov. Robert J. Duffy to play a key role in the talks.

"We are committed to doing all we can to keep the Bills in Western New York and to negotiate in good faith with the county and Bills," said Matthew L. Wing, a Cuomo spokesman.

Given the fact that the October NFL meeting is off the table for the Bills, the team will have to wait until the NFL's annual spring meeting in mid-March to get league approval for some sort of G-4 funding. Once that's in place, presumably the sides could hammer out a deal.

The fact that it won’t be sooner means the Bills won’t be able to begin significant work on the stadium in 2013, as the team had hoped –- a big disappointment to the Bills.

"So we're at a stage now where we're going to have to restart the process and set a new calendar of goals and objectives," Brandon said, referring to the renovation phases laid out in a design plan by the architectural firm Populous, based in Kansas City, Mo.

"Because of that, an interim agreement on a one-year basis may be necessary," Brandon said. "We're looking at the March meeting for league approval potentially on a long-term lease. And it's not an acceptable situation to be in as we plan for '13."

Asked if a one-year extension is the likeliest scenario, Brandon said: "They'd have to fast-track some discussions, which we are looking forward to doing. We have been very transparent, very open, and we have been ready, willing and able to meet anytime and anywhere, and the county and state both are very aware of that. When our phone rings again, we're happy to meet and set the new calendar."

Brandon made it clear that the team still fully supports the Populous design plan, which calls for structural improvements to keep the facility viable, infrastructure improvements to meet technology needs, and a total renovation of exterior gates and paths around the stadium.

Brandon said that if a one-year interim lease is necessary, it would not lessen the Bills' commitment to negotiating a long-term lease to keep the franchise viable in Buffalo.

"No, our focus is to continue to negotiate a term that's in the best interest of all the parties involved, Brandon said. "We've stated from Day One we’re forging ahead in trying to negotiate a lease extension when all the parties are willing and able to do that. It's a speed bump that we'll overcome –- hopefully."

Poloncarz said: "We're going to get a lease done. I'm hopeful we’re going to get it done this year [meaning by July 31, 2013]. If not, we're going to do whatever it takes to ensure that a lease is entered into that not only ensures the long-term viability of the Bills, but is affordable in the long run to the taxpayers of Erie County."

"We've had productive discussions," Poloncarz stressed. "Rich Tobe [deputy county executive] has been in contact with [Bills Treasurer] Jeff Littmann. I'm looking forward to have an opportunity to not only continue negotiations we've had but to soon sit down with Mr. Wilson to discuss it, as well."

As far as the state’s commitment goes, the Bills' contention in the last lease deal was that it was essentially a "zero-sum game" for the state, meaning that the money it pays for the stadium upgrades is offset by the state income and sales taxes that are paid by the Bills' players. No doubt the team will be making the same argument with the state this time. The Bills will pay out more than $135 million in player salaries this season.

News Staff Reporters Denise Jewell Gee and Gene Warner contributed to this report.

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About Press Coverage

Tim Graham

Tim Graham

Tim Graham returned to The Buffalo News in 2011 after covering the NFL for three years at ESPN and for one year at the Palm Beach Post. Before that, the Cleveland native spent seven seasons on the Buffalo Sabres beat for The News and was president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.

@ByTimGraham | tgraham@buffnews.com


Mark Gaughan

Mark Gaughan

Buffalo native Mark Gaughan started working at The News in 1980 and has been covering the Bills exclusively since 1992. He is a former president of the Pro Football Writers of America, and he is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee.

@gggaughan | mgaughan@buffnews.com


Jay Skurski

Jay Skurski

Jay Skurski joined The News in January 2009. The Lewiston native attended St. Francis High School before graduating from the University of South Florida. He writes a weekly Fantasy column in addition to his beat writing duties.

@JaySkurski | jskurski@buffnews.com

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