BY JOHN WAWROW
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — BUFFALO — The Bills are beginning their search for a new stadium in an attempt to secure their long-term future in Buffalo.
The team appointed seven people to "A New Stadium Working Group," with club President Russ Brandon and Sen. Charles Schumer among them. The move comes two days after the death of the franchise's 95-year-old owner Ralph Wilson.
"There is no better way to honor Ralph Wilson's legacy than keeping the Bills right where they belong: in western New York," Schumer said in a statement. "I am certain Ralph would want all of us to do everything we can to keep his dear Bills in Buffalo."
The Bills also announced private funeral services for Wilson will be held in his hometown of Detroit on Saturday. A public remembrance will be held at a date yet to be determined.
The other five appointees are: local developer Louis Ciminelli; Buffalo-based new Era Cap Co. CEO Christopher Koch; Jordan Levy, managing partner of SoftBank Capital; Bills chief financial officer Jeffrey Littman; and Mary Owen, a Bills vice president and Wilson's niece.
Brandon said the appointees are "passionate" about the team and recognize its importance "economically and socially to the western New York community."
The seven become the final additions to what will be a 19-member group made up of private and public leaders from across the region.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed five members to the group last month. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz named seven appointees three weeks ago.
The stadium group was a requirement of the 10-year lease the Bills negotiated with the state and county in December 2012.
The $271 million lease included the commitment of $130 million in public and private funds for upgrades at Ralph Wilson Stadium, which opened in 1973. The deal also set aside money to fund a potential new stadium or future renovations at the team's current home.
The Bills are entering their 55th year since being among founding teams of the American Football League.
Wilson's death has brought questions because the Pro Football Hall of Fame member failed to provide a clear succession plan. The Bills are expected to be operated out of a trust and then sold, raising the possibility a new owner could relocate the team.
The Bills are essentially locked into playing at Ralph Wilson Stadium through 2019. The lease features a $400 million penalty the Bills would have to pay in the event a court ruled in favor of the team breaking its lease. In 2020, the Bills have a one-time opportunity to opt out of the lease for about $28 million.
Several local groups have already been formed with an eye on keeping the franchise in Buffalo.
Two years ago, Nicholas Stracick established the Greater Buffalo Sports and Entertainment Complex. The group is proposing to use private and public funds to build a $1.4 billion waterfront sports and entertainment facility that would include a 70,000-plus-seat, retractable-roofed stadium to one day serve as the Bills' new home.
The group's proposal has the backing of Buffalo's city council, but has not been recognized by the Bills.
Earlier this year, longtime Bills season-ticket holder Matt Sabuda, helped found the Buffalo Fan Alliance. The group is proposing to seek donations from Bills fans to raise $200 million. The funds would be made available to the next owner in the form of an interest-free loan to help offset purchase or capital costs.