Bills, Sabres Execs Talk Development

August 17, 2012 Updated Aug 17, 2012 at 4:11 PM EDT

By WKBW News
By Business First by James Fink

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August 17, 2012 Updated Aug 17, 2012 at 4:11 PM EDT

BUFFALO, NY (WKBW) - As lease talks between the Buffalo Bills, Erie County and New York state continue, the team's chief executive officer said he is confident the Bills will sign a lease extension, keeping the National Football League franchise in the region for many years to come.

Russ Brandon offered that brief insight into the ongoing lease talks during a "Business of Sports: The State of Sports in WNY and Beyond" power breakfast presented by Business First. For the most part, the Bills organization has been mum about their lease negotiations.

"We are very committed to a lease extension," Brandon said. "We are committed to getting a long-term deal done."

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said he hopes to have a new lease in place by the end of the year. The current Bills lease at Ralph Wilson Stadium expires next July.

Central to the talks is the future of Ralph Wilson Stadium, the Bills' home for the past 39 seasons. A consultant's report said the stadium needs approximately $220 million in renovations and upgrades - much of that involving infrastructure like electrical upgrades and improving the cramped concourses in the venue. The cost is likely to be borne mostly by Erie County and New York state, although the Bills may also have to help pay for some of the work.

Brandon said the Bills took a "very holistic" approach to whether the stadium should be renovated and, at what level and cost, or should it be replaced with a downtown Buffalo facility.

Costs and practicality led the Bills to the decision to make the more practical renovations to the stadium.

A new stadium would cost anywhere from $800 million to $900 million while soup-to-nuts renovations like those the Kansas City Chiefs recently did at Arrowhead Stadium cost $450 million.

"This is more focused on the consumer and day-to-day operations," Brandon said.

Some NFL and other sports teams now use personal seat licensing agreements to finance renovation or new stadium costs. PSLs are fees charged for the right to buy tickets. In New York's MetLife Stadium, 50-yard-line seats come with a $100,000 PSL surcharge.

PSLs are not an option for the Bills, Brandon said. They would fly, he insisted.

"The main thing (with the stadium renovation costs) is that we do not want to put them on the back of our consumers," Brandon said.

The Bills lease talks and stadium renovations were not the only sports-development issue covered during the 90-minute discussion between Brandon and five other local sports industry leaders.

Also commanding a lot of attention is the Buffalo Sabres' interest in securing the development rights for the Webster Block in downtown Buffalo, which sits just across from First Niagara Center. The Sabres and developer Carl Paladino are both vying for the development rights for the key downtown parcel, with Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown expected to name a designated developer in the next few weeks.

Sabres' owner Terry Pegula is proposing a $123 million multi-use development anchored by a pair of rinks and a brand name hotel. The rinks would house youth, amateur and adult leagues and tournaments.

"We would like to turn it into an economic engine for Buffalo," said Ted Black, Sabres' president. "Terry and Kim (Pegula's wife) really want to do something for the city. They want to leave behind a legacy and they are using hockey as that vehicle."

Black admits the Webster Block development scenario is a relatively new one. Brown, during his February "State of the City" address, announced his plans for developing the nearly two-acre block, that's currently used as a 300-car surface parking lot. Bids went out in April and were due back by June 15.

Brown wants the project under construction by next spring.

"It would balance the neighborhood," said Pete Augustine, president, New Era Cap Co. Augustine was another panelist.

Black said when Pegula bought the Sabres in February 2011, the Webster Block was committed to HSBC Bank as the site for its regional headquarters. The bank scrapped those plans last summer as part of a global restructuring strategy.

"It really wasn't on our radar" Black said.

If Brown opts for Paladino's proposal, which also calls for a mixed-use development anchored by a hotel and upscale apartments, Black said he wasn't sure if the Sabres would shift the dual rink project to another site near the First Niagara Center.

In other topics covered during the discussion:

• Newly named University at Buffalo athletics director Danny White discounted rumors that the school may be pursuing a Division I men's and women's hockey program.

For now, UB is focusing on its existing programs including instituting measures to make some of its higher profile sports like men's basketball and football more competitive and attention grabbing.

"Football tends to run the agenda," White said. "Once we make the football program more consistently competitive, there are all sorts of options for us."

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