Bills Stadium Saga Reaches Inevitable Conclusion

There really was never going to be much of a question over where the Bills new stadium was going to be built. While the conversation over a downtown or Orchard Park site was a valuable one to have, the die was cast when the Bills released their report indicating their preference to build in Orchard Park.

“Concerned” downtown developers can turn their attention to other causes now that Governor Hochul said the state will accept the Bills’ preferred site across Abbott Rd. in Orchard Park. The Pegulas held the hammer on this and barring extraordinary circumstances, the state and county were always going to play ball with regard to where they wanted to build (humorous as it may be considering they’re asking the public to pay for so much of this project).

Rendering by Populous, I think.

Maintaining the status quo in Orchard Park is a fine conclusion to this process. The Bills can continue to play next door to their training facilities and offices, the fans get to keep tailgating and the price tag will be slightly more palatable for all parties involved. A more streamlined construction schedule and lower land acquisition costs all add up as positive factors for a new stadium in Orchard Park.

The limitations of a suburban stadium will remain as well. Below average access and limited offseason uses being chief among them.

We certainly don’t lose anything with the construction of a new stadium in Orchard Park. But we don’t really gain anything either, and I think that’s the one lasting question I’ll have once the new building is finished. What, if anything, will we have missed by not building in the city? There are many, many issues at play, but there are a few overarching topics which probably needed more attention than they got.

Economics & Development

As the Bills In Buffalo group got their message off the ground, one of their big talking points was the ability for a stadium to be an economic driver for the city. It is, perhaps, the most flawed arguments you could make for a sports venue.

There are piles and piles of studies that show just how poor of an investment a stadium is. I won’t link them all here but these two illustrate the conclusions quite well. In short, the public investment into a Bills stadium was never going to pay off for Western New York. No matter where they built. In that respect, the lower price tag of the Orchard Park location nets out as a benefit to the taxpayers.

What’s interesting about the Perry site that would have likely been the downtown location is that it would not necessarily have been a silver bullet that many stadiums are billed as. I’m not sure why the Bills in Buffalo group insisted on pushing a downtown stadium as a development driver when the Perry location would have been around so much existing development. That should have been the selling point for building in that location. A stadium would not have had to serve as a draw for development. Rather, it would have been built a stone’s throw from Canalside, KeyBank Center, the Casino and the larger the Cobblestone Parking Entertainment District. With so much positive momentum in and around Canalside, along Ohio St. and up Main St., a stadium would have been a complement rather than a centerpiece. With residences finally coming to Canalside and other attractions sprouting up around the area (Resurgence, Riverworks and Hofbrauhaus, for example), we wouldn’t have to rely on the stadium to spur any development. It would have been an interesting addition to the area in that regard because a stadium would have been a positive addition to that entertainment district as a whole.

Infrastructure

One of the main reasons a downtown site would have been so much more expensive than Orchard Park was the need for infrastructure improvements to ensure proper access to the site. Expanding thruway ramps, surface streets and public transit were factors that just simply don’t exist in Orchard Park.

Those are also all improvements which would have served as a larger benefit to residents of the city and those who visit. Arguably more so than the stadium itself would have been.

Improved on and off-ramps to the I-190 would be used everyday. Repairs and improvements to surface streets in the area would do the same for residents in the area and commuters at large. The work to the DL&W shed will help open the door for an eventual expansion to Larkinville, connecting the stadium to the rail line – an absolute no brainer – would get you halfway to that Larkinville extension. As an aside, finding a way to simply build an extension to Larkinville in a hypothetical downtown stadium would have increased connections and helped alleviate some of the unfounded parking issues many had with a downtown site.

That connects to another misconception that was used against a downtown site; traffic. Byron Brown trumpeted a common talking point that traffic after Sabres games is already bad, how could we ever deal with Bills traffic. A point that badly misses the mark anytime it’s brought up and somehow also ignores the absolute nightmare that is Bills traffic in Orchard Park.

Consider, for a moment, the access points to Highmark Stadium. The vast majority of fans (anyone north of West Seneca) arrive via the 219 or potentially Route 5. You have some who are wise enough to use Abbott or other surface streets, but by and large you have two main arteries serving the stadium. The city has double the options in terms of expressways as you can arrive via the north and southbound 190, Route 5 and the 33. Factor in surface streets and public transit and the ability to disperse traffic is exponentially greater in the city than it is in Orchard Park. And that’s before any improvements would be made to accommodate a new stadium. Nevermind that dealing with traffic is simply part of the bargain you strike with hosting large events. That our region can’t grasp what real traffic is shouldn’t get in the way of the actual information available to us to evaluate.

Oh, and by the way, Sabres traffic is a breeze. Why anyone thinks it’s bad is beyond me.

I’m losing the thread here a bit, but it’s important to note that the idea that a downtown stadium would somehow create gridlock is preposterous to me to begin with. That the point was being made knowing that large infrastructure improvements would accompany the project is borderline ignorant. Those infrastructure additions would also have given the city an actual year-round benefit as it would help commuters and visitors alike. Something that any stadium would be unlikely to deliver.

Usage Opportunities

The limited use a football stadium gets is typically one of the drivers behind the lack of return on investment for the region they occupy. Getting 20 uses per year with full capacity is pretty paltry for a billion-plus price tag. Finding ways to capitalize on that huge investment, especially downtown, would have been a challenge.

Buffalo was never going to get a Super Bowl. We don’t have the hotels or convention space to effectively host one. The idea that a dome stadium in the city would score Buffalo a Super Bowl was foolish to discuss even as a pipe dream. I think the best-case scenario for a covered stadium in the city of Buffalo would have been hosting NCAA basketball regional finals with an outside shot at a Final Four. If it was built to host soccer, you might score a USMNT or USWNT game or two along the way.

A downtown stadium probably results in a few more concerts coming through town, but turning the lights on for more than 30 nights a year is probably a big ask. It’s a bigger ask in Orchard Park, but less so. We’re seeing concerts come back to the stadium after a lengthy layoff and a covered stadium in Orchard Park would probably draw about the same amount of acts as a downtown stadium, with a few key omissions. You probably lose the ability to lobby for an Elite 8 or Final Four and similar events, but that’s about it. Of course, it doesn’t sound like a roof is in the works for Orchard Park, which might further limit non-Bills events. But when evaluating everything on balance (covered stadiums in both locations) you’d maybe see a slight uptick in the city. But not nearly enough to completely justify the increased price tag.

Dome Sweet Dome

Terry Pegula thinks football should be played outside. Terry Pegula should mind his business, in my opinion. Ten NFL stadiums have a roof and two more have a covered stand. That’s 1/3 of the NFL that plays indoors. You can further maximize fan comfort (and probably spending) by tossing a roof on this stadium. Oh by the way, the quarterback you’re about to pay $250 to would be able to throw the ball all over the place for the eight-plus games a year you play at home. Given the direction the league is trending, that’s a consideration to make for future Bills quarterbacks too.

A roof also opens the door for more non-football events to come through the building. Which not only puts more money in the owners pocket, but would offer some benefit to the taxpayers. The idea that the Bills need to play in conditions is antiquated. Save for the experiment in New York City, the most important game of the year is either played indoors or in temperate climates. Put your team in a postion to win as many home games as possible, set them up for homefield in the playoffs and enjoy having your fans warm, cozy and spending more on gamedays in your covered stadium.

Parking and Tailgating

One other popular objection to a downtown stadium is the negative impact it would have on tailgating. You also heard the popular refrain from any suburbanite who goes to the city of “where would we park”. I touched on the benefits of public transit above, but as a noted suburbanite myself, I’m always floored by the idea that it’s so hard to find parking in the city. Public transit works, you know. It’s especially useful in getting you from one are of the city down to where the arena and a hypothetical Bills stadium would have been. Hot tip for those of you who are perplexed by Sabres traffic: park in a ramp or lot around Huron and Chippewa and catch the train. Your drive home will be traffic free.

There’s also a literal sea of parking in the Cobblestone District. I know in theory that those lots could be developed, but who are we kidding here? If the Bills built in the city, I can almost guarantee those lots would be open for tailgating. Plus other opportunities throughout the city which would connect to the previously mentioned light rail. You can find plenty of robust tailgating with other downtown stadiums too, so I think the idea that tailgating as we know it would die (as if that’s the worst thing that could happen) if the stadium was built downtown is wrong.

I do, however, feel strongly that the idea of losing tailgating helped inform the Bills decisions here. Keeping their investment as low as possible is certainly the number one factor for the Pegulas, but I think the team’s connection to tailgating was high on the list. The survey PSE released to fans a few years ago featured a number of questions related to tailgating, and while they have not released the results of that survey, I’m confident that there was a very strong response in favor of maintaining the practice.

I mentioned this above, but an Orchard Park stadium maintains the status quo. We don’t lose anything as a fanbase or a region. Tailgating is part of that equation.

In the end I think the decision to build in Orchard Park is probably the right one. The increased price tag downtown wasn’t the boogey man it was being made out to be, mainly because the infrastructure improvements (which are necessary with or without a stadium) would have been a true public benefit. But was still a huge investment that would have largely fallen on the fans (read: taxpayers). While a downtown stadium would have opened up a few more opportunities that will be missed in Orchard Park, the obstacles were always going to be too much to overcome. With all that in mind, if the fans are going to be the Pegula’s oil well, I can deal with keeping the burden as low as possible.

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