Buffalo, NY (WBEN/AP) The Buffalo Bills have informed county officials they will not use an early and one-time opt-out clause to terminate their lease at New Era Field.
The team’s decision, sent in a letter to Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz on Friday, was considered a formality, but in no way rules out the possibility of the Bills one day playing at new facility in downtown Buffalo.
The opt-out clause sparked initial concern once the Bills were put up for sale following the death of Hall of Fame owner Ralph Wilson in March 2014. Fears were raised that a prospective new owner would opt out of the lease and relocate the franchise outside of western New York.
Those concerns were allayed when Terry and Kim Pegula purchased the Bills for a then-NFL record $1.4 billion, in beating out bids from rocker Jon Bon Jovi, who backed a Toronto-based group, and President Donald Trump.
The Pegulas, who also own the NHL Buffalo Sabres, have established their corporate base in Buffalo and assured fans they had no intention of relocating the Bills.
That doesn’t mean the team will be staying put at its current home in suburban Buffalo.
Earlier this week, the Pegulas announced they concluded a yearlong feasibility study to determine the Bills’ future home. The study focused on whether the team should continue playing in suburban Orchard Park, or consider building a new facility downtown or near their existing site.
The Bills are sticking to their decision to not reveal the study’s findings, because it was privately funded by the team.
In a statement released by the team, the Pegulas would only say: “We’re working internally to determine the next steps regarding any future plans for the home of the Buffalo Bills.”
On Wednesday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said he was open to either option, so long as the renovations are “significant.” Speaking during the Super Bowl festivities in south Florida, Goodell added he expects a decision to be made within months.
The next step will have the Bills approaching state and local governments, who will have a stake in whatever decision is reached.
Both options are deemed expensive and have raised concerns over how much public money might be required to fund the project, and how much a new stadium could boost ticket prices in one of the NFL’s smallest markets.
Terry Pegula made clear in June that cost and the size of Buffalo’s market will play a factor in whatever decision is made.
“Whatever we’re going to do stadium-wise is going to be in the best interest of our fans,” Pegula told The Associated Press. “We have the interest of our fans at heart, and what we do will be heavily weighted — whatever the plan is — toward the benefit of our fans.”
A New York state-funded study in 2014 projected the next round of renovations would cost $540 million, including for structural improvements and rebuilding the stadium’s third deck. A new facility would cost almost double that, depending on location and whether it features a roof and based on how much infrastructure upgrades — expanded roads, access ramps, public transportation — might be necessary.
Of three downtown sites identified in the state study, one was considered ideal in being located in what’s known as the city’s Cobblestone District, and only two blocks from the Sabres rink and the Pegulas’ headquarters. The site is also close to a public rail stop as well as several newly built hotels, including the Pegula-owned Harborcenter, which features a hotel, restaurant and two NHL-sized rinks.
“That’s what we’re all hearing,” said Carl Paladino, one of Buffalo’s most prominent developers, referring to the Cobblestone site. “It would do a lot for downtown development.”
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown has long favored the Bills return to the city after the team left its original home, War Memorial Stadium, for the suburbs to what’s currently known as New Era Field, which opened in 1973.
“I regard it, as many people in the community do, as one of the major planning errors made in Buffalo and western New York,” Brown said Friday. “We see how other communities that place their stadia in their downtowns have grown and prospered.”
Though he’s unaware of the Bills’ plans, Brown said the city is well-prepared to address infrastructural needs for a new stadium.
The feasibility study also assessed renovations to the Sabres’ home, KeyBank Center, which opened in 1996.