By John Wawrow
Progress is being made in negotiations to extend the Buffalo Bills lease at Ralph Wilson Stadium and the $200 million price tag for renovations that comes with it, leaving Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz hopeful an agreement in principal could be reached by the end of next month.
"I feel there's agreement on some basic principles, and as a result I feel that we're headed in the right direction," Poloncarz said by phone on Friday. "We'll be meeting again in the future very soon, and it is my goal as well as the Bills' organization to have the general terms hammered out by the start of training camp."
Poloncarz stressed it's premature to label the deal as anywhere near completion.
The first step would be reaching what Poloncarz called a "memorandum of understanding," which would encompass the framework of the agreement by the time the Bills open training camp on July 26. The date does not represent a hard and fast deadline, but is instead an artificial timetable the two sides have set as an objective to complete talks.
The next step would be just as comprehensive and involve lawyers preparing an actual lease to be signed before the Bills' current deal expires in July 2013.
The lease talks, combined with the Bills' bid to extensively renovate the 40-year-old stadium, are regarded as a key phase in securing the small-market franchise's long-term future in Buffalo.
Poloncarz confirmed the renovation price tag at being between $200 million and $220 million, which is more than double what former Erie County Executive Chris Collins projected it would be in October before talks began.
Last year, the Bills spent about $500,000 in hiring an architectural firm 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.
The renovations would take about three years to complete, with the work done during the NFL offseason, Poloncarz said.
Up for discussion is how much of the team's wish-list of needs will be included and how to divide the costs between the county, state as well as the Bills.
Poloncarz said that the Bills and the NFL have been asked to contribute an undisclosed share. He noted that other teams, including the Minnesota Vikings and Kansas City Chiefs, have committed their own money on renovations or building new stadiums. And he added the NFL has system in place to help its franchises pay for capital improvements.
With Erie County having limited resources, Poloncarz also expects New York State to provide a commitment. The state has a large stake in keeping the Bills, because the team is estimated to generate between $15 million and $20 million in state taxes.
Talks have involved both Erie County and state officials, while the Bills have been represented by CEO Russ Brandon and treasurer Jeffrey Littman.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo's representatives have repeatedly declined to comment on lease talks. Brandon was out of the office and not available for comment.
Brandon has previously said the Bills are committed to Buffalo, while adding the stadium renovations are both necessary to preserve the existing facility and allow the franchise to keep pace with newer stadiums around the NFL.
Without going into detail, Poloncarz said the Bills have provided assurances of their commitment to stay in Buffalo.
"That is part of the negotiations that are going on, but I do feel in my heart that the Bills not only are committed to this community today, but are committed to this community in the future," he said. "I believe it is Ralph Wilson's desire that the Bills stay in this community after his death. And I think everybody at the table believes that. The Bills have expressed that repeatedly."
Though Bills owner Ralph Wilson has maintained he has no intention of selling or relocating the team during his lifetime, the 93-year-old Detroit-based businessman isn't getting any younger. And concerns continue to be raised as to what might happen to the franchise upon his death, because Wilson has not revealed a succession plan beyond having his heirs sell the team.
"We're not New York City, we're not Chicago, we're not Boston, and we never will be," Poloncarz said, in noting how important the Bills are to Buffalo's image. "But I certainly like us to be greater than other cities out there of comparable size that wish they had an NFL team. Well, we have one, and I have no intention of seeing that team leave on my watch."