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Exploring the future of Buffalo’s football stadium

May 18, 2012

Let’s be real, the city of Buffalo will never host a Super Bowl. Even if Cowboys Stadium was airlifted up from Arlington, it just isn’t going to happen. So when a $975 million figure comes down for the proposed stadium in Minneapolis, Buffalonians shouldn’t be concerned about the future of the Ralph or the idea of a new stadium in the city.

Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, 67,000 seats. Would this be so hard to put on the waterfront?

The elephant in the room is the glimmering new stadium proposition in Los Angeles. It seems likely that Farmers Field will be built and that the second step will be to relocate a team to Los Angeles. Among the teams whispered about on an annual basis, the Bills, Vikings and Jaguars are three of the most popular. The Vikings are all but removed from the list of potentials with the announcement on their stadium.

I have to think that Jacksonville would be the odds-on favorite for a move. After all, the Jags tarp over a ridiculous number of seats every season and haven’t taken a firm grip in the Sunshine State. Of course, Buffalo’s aged stadium, poor economy and the looming specter of Ralph Wilson’s estate makes the ground the Bills stand on rocky – at best. However, there are ways to ensure the Bills remain in Buffalo forever, and they don’t all require a brand new stadium.

While Ralph Wilson’s estate will not be something that is addressed for a few more years, it is certainly at the crux of many Bills-related discussions. There are plenty of rumors of varying legitimacy swirling about ownership groups led by Jim Kelly, Tom Golisano (please no), Jeremy Jacobs and even Terry Pegula coming in to purchase the team. However, these are indeed rumors and there is no clear heir apparent to Wilson as owner of the Bills. Knowing that there is going to be a group – or one person – that will keep the Bills in Buffalo indefinitely is something that needs to be established in the coming years.

If an ownership group can be hammered out, there will be more clarity towards the future of the team and what direction can be taken regarding a permanent stadium project. The current plan on the table makes plenty of sense. The team, city and fans are not in a position to build a sparkling shrine to the game of football and a balanced renovation project will provide the footing necessary to stave off those sniffing at relocation.

However, there will come a day when a new stadium will be necessary. Whether that is five, ten or twenty years from now, the Buffalo Bills will eventually need a new stadium. What is unfortunate is the team (and city) aren’t in the position to remedy that situation. The proposed renovation project appears to be a broad sweeping plan that will help bring the Ralph closer to its newer, shinier cousins around the league. It is a perfect stop-gap to ensure a number of safe years in Buffalo before a permanent stadium plan can be determined.

Perhaps the time has come to begin preparing the city for this project. Rather than being caught by surprise, the city, county and team should know what their plan of attack will be for constructing a new stadium. Based on the size of Buffalo, a massive stadium project is out of the question. However, there are a number of stadiums that have been built which could serve as a blueprint for the Bills:

  • Cleveland Browns Stadium (1997) – Capacity: 73,000 – Cost: $350 million ($487 million in 2012)
  • Heinz Field, Pittsburgh (1999) – Capacity: 65,000 – Cost: $281 million ($369M in 2012)
  • M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore (1996) – Capacity: 71,000 – Cost: $220 million ($314M in 2012)
  • Ford Field, Detroit (1999) – Capacity: 65,000/70,000 – Cost: $430 million ($556M in 2012)
  • Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis (2005) – Capacity: 70,000 – Cost: $720 million ($777M in 2012)

Obviously the cost figures are skewed even when calculated for cost in 2012. However, the general idea behind these stadiums is why I used them for comparison. Pittsburgh and Cleveland, in particular, are near identical cities to Buffalo who were able to build moderately affordable stadiums in the heart of their respective cities. Heinz Field may be the best example to follow for Buffalo. It is built around the corner from PNC Park (they were funded in tandem) and a neighborhood rife with bars and restaurants. Heinz will never host a Super Bowl, but it is a stadium with strong sight lines, an appropriate capacity and came in on a budget that didn’t bankrupt the taxpayers, team and city. Following the Heinz Field model would be perfect for Buffalo.

The reason this is such a key part of any stadium conversation is because it is affordable. Buffalo would never be able to support a massively subsidized, seat licensed glimmering beacon of football. But an appropriately size, attractive stadium would bring modern amenities without burdening the city or taxpayers with a ridiculous burden. By no means could a stadium be built for $370M, however, the Bills could likely get away with a stadium in the neighborhood of $500M. If you’re scoring along at home, that is roughly half of the Minneapolis project.

This stadium wouldn’t be domed – but who cares – and wouldn’t be capable of hosting a Super Bowl – but who cares – however, it would be a perfect replacement for a building that is growing obsolete by the day. Not to mention, bringing 65,000+ down near the city would infuse patrons in to local restaurants and that proposed entertainment district down near the arena.

A mock-up posted on 92.9’s website of the Ralph plopped on the Outer Harbor.

A great starting point would be the Outer Harbor. The vast expanse of land looks destined for little more than a massive park (which isn’t necessarily a bad idea) and nothing more. After all, public access begins and ends with park space, nothing else can provide such access.

The Outer Harbor would offer the space for parking and the stadium while also having enough wiggle room to properly alter the infrastructure to provide access to the stadium. This site would also provide nearly direct access to downtown rather than having the stadium reside in the suburbs. The outer harbor doesn’t need to be the end-all-be-all, it just has the requisite space necessary to support a stadium project.

It is beyond foolish to think that Buffalo’s politicians would ever be capable of collaborating to get such a project off the drawing board. Hell, we can’t even get a children’s museum off the drawing board. But these discussions need to begin so that we can end those discussions about our football team leaving town.

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