Buffalo News: "Advocates: No Bills stadium deal without strong community benefits agreement"

Date: April 3, 2022

By: Sandra Tan | April 3, 2022

Community advocates are demanding that elected leaders refuse to approve any new Buffalo Bills stadium deal unless it's accompanied by a strong community benefits agreement to ensure that the Bills organization gives back to the people of Buffalo and Erie County.

"I’m happy we’re even talking about a community benefits agreement," said Holly Nowak, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Justice. "Is it enough to just talk about it? No."

Many who have expressed disappointment that a new stadium won't be located in Buffalo are refocusing their energy on making sure that even though the new Bills stadium will be built in Orchard Park, Buffalo and other high-need communities will still directly benefit from the deal.

Given the record-setting amount of public money being earmarked for the new stadium, they said, it's only right that the private, billionaire-owned NFL team prove its commitment to Western New York by funding a generous agreement to support local community needs and negotiating the agreement with community partners who should have a seat at the table.

"You can’t have a community benefits agreement without the community being represented as part of the discussion," said Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, executive director of the Partnership for the Public Good.

The terms of the memorandum of understanding between the Bills, New York State and Erie County stipulate that a community benefits agreement will be included in the final deal. But the MOU does not state how much money the Bills would put toward such a community agreement, nor does it offer much detail about what may be financed in such an agreement.

Instead, the memo simply states the Bills "shall provide various community benefits" in a final CBA.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz has said that with the new stadium expected to take more than a year to break ground, there's plenty of time to flesh out a detailed community agreement.

"I feel pretty good we're going to get a strong community benefit agreement after the conversations I've had with the Bills," he said.

Among the benefits already mentioned in the MOU are the right for the county and the state to hold a certain number of civic events at the stadium, for some stadium space to be set aside for economic development and tourism purposes, and for the team to make free tickets and parking passes available for community and charitable causes.

From community advocates' point of view, that list barely scratches the surface of what the Bills should be giving back to the region.

"It’s great to open up this recreational opportunity to more people and make it a little bit more accessible, but with the amount of public funding toward this deal, that’s simply not enough," Súilleabháin said.

Nowak also said, "This is not a fight against the Bills. We’re all fans."

But the Bills should be more than just a football team, she said. They should be true community partners who play a role in improving the region for all.

The push for a strong community giveback component should surprise no one. Several public hearings have been held while stadium lease negotiations were ongoing, and all included aggressive advocacy for a community benefits agreement.

Advocates said they are glad to see a written commitment to one, but they remain concerned that the CBA may be treated as an afterthought in the overall stadium deal.

"When we look around the country, we see much smaller deals that have clear community benefits from the start," Súilleabháin said. "Part of the challenge is that this has been such a closed process. That’s something we see shifting in the weeks ahead."

She also highlighted other high-profile community benefit agreements with professional sports teams in cities that received far less public subsidies than the Bills are slated to receive.

As noted in prior summaries and presentations from Partnership for the Public Good, community coalitions worked with teams and government agencies to create community benefit agreements such as:

  • Pittsburgh Penguins, 2008: Agreed to provide $1 million to help build a local grocery store, agreed to prioritize hiring of neighborhood residents for arena work and provide $500,000 a year to support a neighborhood partnership program.
  • Atlanta Falcons, 2017: New stadium deal includes $40 million in support for parks, a job center, housing and social programs.
  • Los Angeles Clippers, 2020: Deal, valued at $100 million, includes use of Covid-19 funds. Overall commitments include $6 million to upgrade the city's public library and create a community center, millions for scholarships and education grants, and low-income housing support. 

Various community benefit agreements include explicit "locals first" hiring standards with minimum pay requirements. The broad terms of the current Bills stadium deal would include a project labor agreement, details of which must still be finalized.

The Bills project labor agreement would ensure union participation, living wage provisions, apprenticeship training, competitive bidding and subcontracting work targeting minority and women-owned businesses. But county legislators have said they want to ensure local construction workers receive priority over any from outside the region.

Legislature Chairwoman April Baskin, who is closely connected with community advocacy and equity groups, said she intends to advocate for fair and equitable public transportation to the stadium, diversity of stadium-related job and business contracting opportunities, and youth and cultural investments that will continue to bear fruit over the 30-year term of the lease deal.

Though all major stadium documents are supposed to be agreed to by Sept. 1, both community and elected leaders have said there is still time to put together a community benefits agreement that is thoughtful and thorough. Súilleabháin warned, however, that without a strong CBA, the community push to delay or defeat the Bills stadium deal will grow.

To read the full article on the Buffalo News website, click here