After the last two games, many Buffalo Bills fans would be relieved to see the team move out of town. Any hope that current management would be able to build a winner was lost with the epic collapse of the Bills' supposedly "vaunted" defense after only five games.
However, we Bills fans will all get over this feeling by, at the latest, next season's training camp. But we will continue to worry about the team's future.
There is good reason to worry. I am as optimistic as anyone about the Bills staying put, but an article in the Buffalo News illuminated the real problem, and it is twofold.
The Bills have been blaming the state for the failure to get a timely renewal of the team's lease on Ralph Wilson Stadium. The state has disclosed that it is the team's unwillingness to make a long-term commitment that has delayed the state's commitment of funds to renovate the stadium.
The article also pointed out that, even with renovations, the existing structure will no longer be functional at current NFL standards in five to 10 years.
In essence, "The Ralph" is a rat hole. It would be foolish for the county, the state or the Bills to put $200 million into a five-year fix. It only cost $20 million to build the stadium in the first place.
But it would also be foolish to build a new stadium if the Bills aren't going to stay in Buffalo.
Still, the long-term solution to keeping the Bills in Buffalo is to build a new stadium that meets the highest NFL standards, especially in amenities. Combined with a rabid fan base and continued growth in the Canadian market, it could be something that may attract a new owner to keep the team in Buffalo rather than move it.
While a ten-figure number is often quoted when discussing the cost of building a new stadium, other newer NFL stadiums have been built recently for between $450 million and $800 million.
It is reasonable to project that a 65,000-seat open-air stadium could be built for something between those two numbers, hopefully closer to the former.
As was the case when "The Ralph" was in the discussion stage, people are again calling for a dome. This is lunacy. Not only is it much more expensive, but it takes away the Bills' home-field advantage in the latter half of the season when weather can play a significant role. A domed stadium is also the opposite of green construction. It creates a huge carbon footprint with the need to heat and air condition the place, not to mention adding another significant operational cost.
The stadium should be built in or near downtown. Here are three possible locations:
The Central Terminal
A new stadium that incorporates the tower and indoor concourse at the Central Terminal would be a win-win. It would provide the funds to preserve the train station. The concourse could be used for concessions. A new building could be incorporated into the old structure with a design that is compatible, perhaps even building a replica of the building—or at least the tower—at the opposite end of the stadium. Whenever a touchdown is scored, a train horn could be blown by someone in a conductor's uniform with Bills branding.
The complex could be called X (for sponsor name) Field at Central Terminal. There is enough room around the old terminal and in nearby lots for a stadium footprint. Most of the parking could be underground, but a surface lot could be built on the site or within a few blocks and could be reserved for tailgaters.
A new stadium with a blue-collar, steel mill motif to celebrate Buffalo's industrial roots could be built on the existing site of the old steel mill. There is plenty of room on the lot for the stadium and limited surface parking while the rest of the parking could be underground. A portion of one of the steel buildings' structures could be used, similarly to the way I proposed the Central Tower could be used.
To define the theme, the stadium could simply copy some of the features of the old factory in the new construction. Whenever a touchdown is scored, a Flintstone-style whistle could be blown by someone in a Bills hard hat. The facility could be called The Steel Yards, with a sponsor name filled in or attached as practical.
Somewhere off of Ohio Street, a stadium could be built up against some grain elevators. On the opposite side, the same grain elevators would be replicated by new construction. The area around the outer harbor and the grain elevators would be sufficient for a stadium footprint with limited surface parking for tailgaters and as much underground parking as needed. The light rail could be extended to the stadium so people could park and ride, just as thousands do for Sabres games.
For this option, General Mills should be recruited to purchase naming rights and call the stadium The Cheerios Bowl. Yes, there is some humor in that, but I am also serious. It would be great for General Mills and great for Buffalo.
We may have to wait for a change in ownership in order to get an organization in place that can attract the best coaching and managerial talent. Let's focus on the long-term future of the Bills rather than the short-term so we aren't quite as depressed by what the team does under lame-duck ownership.
City and state government would have to get together around an aggressive plan to find the money for a stadium that would be the envy of any owner and entice the Bills to lock up the franchise in Buffalo. Bonds could be sold to raise much of the money.
The money doesn't have to be a deal-killer. Remember, if "The Ralph" is only good for five to 10 more years, $200 million for renovations equals $20-40 million per year of use—somewhere between the original cost and double the original cost of the building. In five years, we'd be back talking about building a new stadium after having spent more than a third of the cost of building one in renovations to "The Ralph."
If we're going to have to deal with that in five years, why not just do it now? There's no reason to believe we'll be better situated to raise the money then. It is reasonable to expect that the government's ability to help would be worse by then.
And whether you believe in big government or small government, consider a new stadium infrastructure. It is something every great city needs. It is money that would be well spent. We know that the Bills contribute $100 million per year to the local economy. That's a lot to throw away, even if you hate football. If we build a stadium that could last another 40 years, we're dividing approximately $600 million over 40 years rather than $200 million over five. It's much more practical. Also, by building a stadium in the city, closer to downtown, we would also be enhancing other efforts to revitalize the city core.
With a signature stadium and new ownership, it's believable that the Bills will be in Buffalo for another 50 years, and that they will win a Super Bowl before some of us die.