Ralph Wilson Stadium requires an extensive facelift expected to cost tens of millions in taxpayer dollars for a project that would be tied to the Buffalo Bills renewing their lease with both state and county governments within two years, The Associated Press has learned.
Bills CEO Russ Brandon told the AP that the team has hired a world-leading architectural firm, Populous, which specializes in sports facility projects to conduct a thorough study of what improvements are necessary to both upgrade the stadium's existing structure and add fan-friendly, revenue-generating enhancements.
Brandon called the renovations and upgrades necessary in order keep the stadium viable and competitive with many of the NFL's newer facilities to help ensure the Bills long-term future in western New York.
"We're taking a very methodical approach to the process, spending a lot of time and resources in taking a look at the facility from A to Z," Brandon said. "We have an older facility and it needs some tender love and care. And it's our main objective to make sure the bones of this facility, which are very sound, remain sound for many, many years to come."
Brandon wouldn't say what fan amenities are being considered, but noted the Bills are considering making improvements both inside the stadium and outside, where the team hopes to take advantage of its fans' tailgating traditions.
That could include upgrading everything from the aging, outdated washrooms to adding restaurants, bars and additional vendors inside the facility, to constructing permanent washroom facilities in the parking lots that ring the stadium.
He all but ruled out adding more club seats or suites, which the Bills did in the 39-year-old stadium's last significant upgrade, which cost about $63 million US in 1997. That work, also at taxpayer's expense, was done as part of the team's current lease, which runs through July 2013.
Brandon said it's far too soon to discuss the eventual price of the project.
"We haven't even talked about numbers," he said. "We're not even close to that stage from all the work that we're doing internally."
Erie County Executive Chris Collins told the AP he is expecting the cost to range anywhere from $40 million to more than $100 million.
"We've heard all kinds of number bandied about. I think some of them are on the high end, but it's going to be a substantial investment," Collins said this week.
Collins has had informal talks with the Bills over the past year, and expects the cost of the project to be included in lease negotiations. Formal talks won't begin until the study is completed and the cost of the renovations determined.
"Right now, the Bills are doing an analysis of what is structurally needed, and there's a firm doing that. At some point, there will be a formal request for improvements, you can almost say probably a pre-condition of the lease," Collins said. "Everything in due course. Until we know whether it's $40 million, $60 million, $80 million or $100 million we can't even bring the state in."
Collins is on board with the renovations and expects New York State to foot much of the bill. He said the county doesn't have the financial resources, and Albany has more to gain with the Bills staying in Orchard Park.
Collins estimates the state earns $20 million annually in taxes from the Bills, who are the only NFL team based in New York. By example, he said, if the cost of the renovations is $80 million, then the state could recoup that money within four years.
"If somebody said to you or me, 'I can give you an investment that gives you a 25 per cent return every year guaranteed for the next 10 or 20 years,' I think we'd jump all over that," Collins noted. "We have a role to play, and I'm fully prepared on behalf of taxpayers to play the appropriate role to make sure Albany plays their appropriate role."
A message left seeking comment from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has not been returned.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell discussed the need for stadium improvements while attending the Bills home game against Philadelphia two weeks ago.
"These stadiums don't run on their own. They get old, just like your house get old," Goodell said. "The Bills, the state and the county have done a great job of continuing to make improvements to the stadium to keep it competitive. But you have to continue that."
The stadium's technological capacity is outdated, making it difficult for TV networks to string cables to provide high-definition broadcasts. And that, officials say, is becoming an obstacle for the Bills to host prime-time games, which bring additional exposure and revenue to the team and community.
As for the length of the lease, Collins expects it will be tied with the NFL's recently negotiated collective bargaining agreement, which runs through the 2020 season.
Brandon declined to speculate on what the lease's length might be, though he continued to allay fans' fears of the team's potential relocation.
"Our responsibility has always been keeping this team financially viable," Brandon said. "We've found ways of doing that over the past decade, and look forward to doing it for many years to come."
The Bills future in Buffalo remains a concern because Hall of Fame owner and founder, Ralph Wilson, has said it's his intention to have his family sell the franchise once he dies. Wilson turned 93 on Monday.
Collins is confident the team will not relocate because of the nearly $2 billion it would cost a new owner to buy the Bills, pay an NFL relocation fee and potentially have to build a new stadium.
And he regards the proposed renovations as another sign of the Bills' commitment to staying.
"Let's get over it," Collins said. "We're going to be together forever."
As one of the NFL's smaller-market teams, and based in an economically troubled community, the Bills have spent much of the past 11 years regionalizing their team to offset Buffalo's population drain. In 2000, the Bills relocated their training camp from Fredonia to Rochester, because of the city's corporate base and its proximity to Syracuse. In 2008, the Bills reached a five-year, $78 million deal to play an annual home game in Toronto, Canada's largest city and financial capital.
Those moves are credited with providing up to a combined 30 per cent boost to the Bills' season-ticket base.
The stadium project is the next step to attempt to boost revenue for a franchise that traditionally has among the lowest-priced tickets in the NFL.
"We've remained competitive. It's a testament to our fans," Brandon said, who referred to the stadium renovation as helping establish Ralph Wilson Stadium as "The Fenway Park of the NFL." "We have to continue to find ways to be competitive."
Populous has extensive experience in stadium projects. The firm, which has offices across the globe, designed the Patriots' Gillette Stadium, the Steelers' Heinz Field and Texans' Reliant Stadium, and was behind renovations made at the Chiefs' Arrowhead Stadium.
In a curious twist, the firm's architect overseeing the Ralph Wilson Stadium project is Populous principal partner Scott Radecic. He's a former linebacker who spent three seasons with the Bills in the late 1980s.
"He knows the stadium, but he also knows the market, the people, the passion," Brandon said of Radecic. "Scott has a great understanding of what it means to be a Bill, and what it means to this community."