Buffalo News: "Deadline for a stadium benefits plan nears – with no sign of a final deal"

Date: October 9, 2022

By: Michael Petro, Sandra Tan | October 9, 2022


The clock is ticking to reach a community benefits deal for the new Buffalo Bills stadium, and it is looking increasingly likely that the latest deadline will pass without an agreement.

The deadline – already extended once for 45 days – is Oct. 16 but is not immovable.

The possibility of another extension has come up repeatedly in recent days. With construction slated to start in spring, there is still time to strike a deal without delaying the project.

One unresolved issue is how much the Bills will spend on community initiatives.

Community representatives are seeking a deal that would help projects throughout the Buffalo Niagara region, including in neighborhoods far from the stadium. The team is seeking an agreement that Pegula Sports & Entertainment executives deem fair and reasonable, especially since the team is on the hook for stadium construction cost overruns.

While the Pegulas, New York State and Erie County struck a tentative deal in late March for $850 million in public money to be spent toward the cost of building a $1.4 billion Buffalo Bills stadium, they have been negotiating ever since over the final details. None of the sides is willing to say much about the progress of the talks, except that the community benefits agreement is moving forward with serious negotiations, after long, initial delays.

They have exchanged offers, but all sides remain mum on what the final community benefits agreement, or CBA, could look like and whether common ground can be reached by the Oct. 16 deadline. Negotiations appear to have picked up recently after a long delay.

Few details have emerged
 In other cities, community benefits agreements have included ways to minimize negative impacts of a big project on a nearby community, as well as investments in parks, landscaping, recreation, youth and local collegiate sports and educational programming. They’ve also focused on communities that have been left out of economic development in the past and have helped lay the groundwork for future development around a new stadium, said Robert Silverman, a professor in urban development at the University at Buffalo.

One of the main reasons little is known about the status of the local community benefits agreement is the nondisclosure agreement that Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz asked legislators to sign as they attempt to broker a deal with Pegula Sports & Entertainment, which manages the day-to-day affairs of the Bills and Sabres. The Bills also won't talk about it publicly. 

Community groups feel shut out of the process as details of negotiations are few and far between.

“One thing we’re really grappling with is whether this is a community benefits agreement at all,” said Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, executive director for the Partnership for the Public Good. “We would say, no, and our partners would say, no, because at this point, it is very clear that despite calls to open the process to community representation, the only actors at the table are the state, county and Bills corporation.”

Neighborhood advocates from Buffalo and the suburbs want Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula to commit money and resources toward enhancing local programs, parks, recreation and youth athletics, as well as supporting job training and creation.
“It’s so much public money that there has to be public input and the benefits have to be robust,” said John Goldstein, who’s advised on and negotiated benefits for hundreds of similar projects.

Community groups have cited examples of other agreements that have included robust benefits after engaging community members. That includes one from 2008 in Pittsburgh where more than 100 community groups were part of a coalition working from start to finish on a CBA with the Pittsburgh Penguins for a new arena.

For the Bills' new stadium, planned for across the street from the current one on Abbott Road in Orchard Park, community groups say they’ve been shut out after some initial opportunities for input.

“We’re talking about 30 years of impact here,” Ó Súilleabháin said. “Rather than rushing, I think it’s good to take time and hopefully have a more inclusive process. … I hope there’s still time." 

'Committed to getting it done'
A community benefits agreement isn't always easy to finalize, said Daniel Etna, a New York City lawyer who has been involved in many of these deals.

“When you go down the road in this process, there are some parts of the landscape that are immovable,” Etna said. “One is that you’re going to have a community benefits agreement in place and you’re going to need government approval for it.”

Ron Raccuia, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Bills, has said it is a complicated agreement to finalize, but he feels both sides are "committed to getting it done."
“All of the discussions are ongoing, and we look forward to bringing these agreements to conclusion,” Raccuia said in a statement.
Given that negotiations over the CBA were still in the early stages, and the fact that the state took until Aug. 25 to share other draft documents for all parties to review, including a copy of the detailed lease agreement, all sides agreed to a 45-day deadline extension.

The tentative deal struck between New York State, the Pegulas and Erie County also prohibits the Bills from negotiating for a new stadium with other communities between the original deadline for a deal of Sept. 1 and Oct. 16.

Poloncarz has said that negotiations are moving along, but said he was not surprised by the delay in finishing the deal. Delays also happened during negotiations for a stadium lease deal in 2012. At that time, an extension was signed in December 2012, and the final documents were signed in May 2013.

"Sometimes there are deadlines, and they don’t happen, but all of a sudden you close it and you’re done,” Poloncarz said in August.

A few weeks ago, county officials were waiting to review the latest construction agreement terms for any overlap between it and the proposed CBA. But more negotiations have taken place since then

What should be included?
Danise Wilson, executive director of the Erie Niagara Area Health Education Center, said she’s heard from municipalities throughout the county that are hopeful that the Bills will contribute to the needs of their neighborhoods.

The stadium Memorandum of Understanding, signed in March, called for the Bills to provide various community benefits, such as making the new stadium available to the county and state for civic events, along with allowing the county to use a stadium suite for tourism promotion and economic development. It also called for the Bills to donate tickets and parking passes for home games.

A project labor agreement and the use of prevailing wages according to New York Labor Law will also be used as part of the stadium construction, the Memorandum of Understanding notes.

Erie County Legislator John J. Mills previously said he would like to see the Bills put in sidewalks to and from the stadium to improve pedestrian safety. Meanwhile, Legislature Chairwoman April Baskin outlined a long list of priorities she would like included for underserved populations in Erie County.

Wilson, as a representative of the Play Fair campaign, is calling for $500 million in reinvestment from the Bills over the 30-year new stadium lease. 

Other deals lay groundwork
 Prior sports venue deals provide examples of what can be done.

As part of a 2006 deal for public subsidies for Yankee Stadium, the New Yankee Stadium Community Benefits Fund was created to spend almost $40 million on grants and sports equipment, along with 600,000 baseball tickets, for community organizations in the Bronx over four decades. It also called for building three ballparks on the now former Yankees Stadium site, Etna said.

“These deals should be an ongoing working partnership with the community – getting down to a macro level to try to make the neighborhood better,” Etna said.

The CBA signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008 included funding for a new YMCA, full-service grocery store in a neighborhood that had not had one in decades and job training in some of Pittsburgh's poorer neighborhoods.

In 2017, the Atlanta Falcons’ new Mercedes Benz Stadium came with a commitment by the team of $40 million toward parks, a job center, housing and social programs.

Three years later, the Los Angeles Clippers negotiated a CBA that included a $100 million fund for housing, education and libraries, as well as addressing the inequalities brought to light during the pandemic.

“Why should Buffalo get less than what so many other cities have gotten for a new stadium when our investment is larger?” Ó Súilleabháin said.

Agreements aren’t always smooth
Etna said that completing a CBA should involve hearing from many constituencies. But he believes it is possible that community members and lawmakers in Erie County could still be “asking for the stars and the moon,” so he’s not surprised that the process is dragging.

“I can assure you that any CBA that I’ve worked on, if you look at the footer at the bottom of the document, the version is somewhere around version 18,” he said. “You try to get your arms around as much as you can, but community members realize this isn’t an opportunity that comes around every day, and they try to make the most of it.”

CBAs are complex deals that require a great deal of discussion, Wilson said. She would have liked to have seen a few more town halls. 

“At this point, this is where we have to have faith in our elected officials who are at the table that they are representing us,” she said.

Read the full article on the Buffalo News' website, here