Bills home should fit the community ‘bill’



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Buffalo Bills stadium update October 2022 Image: Buffalo Bills

Everyone involved in the negotiations to build a new home for the National Football League (NFL) team Buffalo Bills (US) agrees that the final deal will include a plan to provide benefits to the community.

‘THE BUFFALO NEWS’ stated that but the consensus ends there. While the Bills have next to nothing to say about the community benefits agreement (CBA), the people and the institutions that stand to benefit from it have a host of complaints and concerns, starting with a big one: They have no idea how the deal is being worked out.

The Buffalo Bills are a professional American football team based in the Buffalo metropolitan area (US). The Bills compete in the National Football League (NFL) as a member club of the league’s American Football Conference East division. The team plays its home games at the Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, New York.

The 71,608-capacity Highmark Stadium is a stadium in Orchard Park, New York (US), in the Southtowns of the Buffalo metropolitan area. The stadium opened in 1973 as Rich Stadium and is the home venue of the Buffalo Bills of the National Football League (NFL).

The architectural firm Populous will design the new 1.35-million-square-foot facility with around 60,000 seats. The $1.4 billion stadium and surrounding parking lots will be on 242.5 acres of property, across the street from the current one on Abbott Road.

A community benefits agreement (CBA) in the United States is a contract signed by community groups and a real estate developer that requires the developer to provide specific amenities and/or mitigations to the local community or neighborhood.

Said Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, Executive Director at the Partnership for Public Good, “This group really believes the public needs to know a lot more before the deal is done about how much money and where the money will go to. We’ve been saying for almost a year now that you cannot have a community benefits agreement (CBA) without community members at the table.”

Stated community activist Jillian Hanesworth, “For all we know, they could be saying, ‘We’re going to do this amazing thing for the community,’ but it’s happening behind closed doors, and I really inherently believe that if something is being done right, it doesn’t have to be done in secret.”

‘THE BUFFALO NEWS’ further stated that the PlayFair Coalition, which consists of more than 60 organizations calling for CBA-driven reinvestments in the City of Buffalo and Erie County, is asking the team, the State and the Erie County for a fair CBA and more transparency in the process. The group held a news conference recently to draw attention to its concerns.

Community groups say they have been shut out of the discussions after some initial opportunities for input due to a nondisclosure agreement signed by the Erie County legislators at the request of the County Executive Mark Poloncarz.

The CBA is just one of a number of agreements that still have some terms being actively negotiated as finer details continue to be hammered out by the three sides.

Ron Raccuia, Executive Vice-President and Chief Operating Officer (COO) for the Bills, said in a statement, “We continue to negotiate all aspects of the stadium agreement in a constructive manner.”

The coalition is asking the Bills to reinvest $500 million back into the community over the 30-year life of the lease for a new stadium, although even the Erie County Legislature Chairwoman April Baskin, a supporter of a strong CBA, has called that number a little steep, compared to past CBAs. That money would go toward grants for affordable housing and businesses, funds to support health equity and youth mentoring and money for student and youth athletics.

Others are calling for more public transit and workforce shuttles connecting the City to the stadium, planned to be built across the street from the current one on Abbott Road, and street improvements around the new facility. They would also like to see local vendors have an opportunity to be part of the retail landscape at the new facility.

In addition, they want to see a governance process, with committee members appointed to oversee how that money is distributed each year.

Added Dennice Barr, President of the Fruit Belt Advisory Council, “I want to be able to know and tell my community, ‘This is where the money is going to be, this is how much is going to be there and this is how we’re going to be able to access it.’ We should get to choose who’s going to be at the table and in charge of those finances. We don’t want to be told.”

The deadline to complete a Bills stadium deal – originally extended to this month – has been extended again, this time until around December. Representatives for the State, county and the Pegula Sports and Entertainment, which represents the Bills and owners Terry and Kim Pegula, will continue to negotiate until 30 days after the State environmental impact study (EIS) is complete and a final determination is made, according to the latest agreement among the three parties.

The team is seeking an agreement that Pegula Sports and Entertainment executives deem fair and reasonable, especially since the team is on the hook for stadium construction cost overruns.

No side is willing to say much about the progress of the talks, except that the community benefits agreement is moving forward with serious negotiations, after long, initial delays.

Said John Washington, a community organizer from the Wakanda Alliance, “Them behind closed doors, thinking of what crumbs they would like to offer people, is not a negotiation and already says that this is not going in the right direction.”

Baskin, who is not free to comment on specific terms being negotiated as part of the CBA due to the nondisclosure agreement, said negotiations have become serious and she is encouraged by them.

Baskin, D-Buffalo, serves on the county’s CBA team along with Poloncarz, Legislature Majority Leader Timothy Meyers, D-Cheektowaga, and Legislator John Mills, R-Orchard Park.

The stadium memorandum of understanding, signed in March, called for the Bills to provide various community benefits, such as making the new stadium available to the county and State for civic events, along with allowing the county to use a stadium suite for tourism promotion and economic development. It also called for the Bills to donate tickets and parking passes for home games.

A project labor agreement and the use of prevailing wages according to the New York Labor Law also will be used as part of the stadium construction, the memorandum notes.

Community groups have cited examples of other agreements that have included robust benefits after engaging community members. That includes one from 2008 in Pittsburgh where more than 100 community groups were part of a coalition working from start to finish on a CBA with the National Hockey League (NHL) team Pittsburgh Penguins for a new arena. It included $250 million in public subsidies.

Stated Ó Súilleabháin, “If this was private investment, you can be sure that those investors would have a very clear understanding of the return on investment – exactly what they were going to get back for those dollars – and public money should be held to a higher standard.”

The desire to see the Bills give back to the community in a groundbreaking way is not just the desire of the poor, marginalized groups, Baskin said. It is a sweeping and bipartisan mandate from communities across Erie County – “The Buffalo Bills need to recognize that the Erie County is not partisan or divided on this. This is an opportunity for the Bills to be more than just our sports team. This is an opportunity for the Bills to move this region forward.”

The group recently garnered support from the local municipalities passing resolutions in support of a community benefits agreement that will improve equity and accessibility throughout Erie County. They include the town boards of Amherst, Cheektowaga and stadium neighbors Orchard Park and Hamburg, as well as the Buffalo Common Council.

Said Hamburg Supervisor Randy Hoak, who called on the Bills to be good neighbors to all of Western New York, “We want to bring all communities of Western New York into the conversation, and that’s really what the town is looking to support. We recognize that this is a larger issue than just a Town of Hamburg issue, it’s a community issue.”

The county negotiating team doesn’t view the Bills organization as an antagonist in CBA negotiations, said Baskin, who acknowledged the team’s ongoing generosity and support to the community over the years.

She concluded by stating, “We’re not here to fight for blood. We’re here to build a strong partnership with the Buffalo Bills.”

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