Taxpayers would be on the hook for $850 million in construction costs for a new Buffalo Bills stadium under a deal announced by New York Gov. Kathy Hochul on Monday, which would make it the largest direct public subsidy for a National Football League stadium in history.
Hochul’s office on Monday unveiled a three-way agreement between the state, Erie County and the football club to build a new $1.4 billion stadium with at least 60,000 seats in the town of Orchard Park, the team’s longtime home.
Under the deal, New York state would pick up $600 million of construction costs, with Erie County kicking in $250 million. The Bills, which are owned by the billionaire Pegula family, and the NFL would pick up the final $550 million and sign a 30-year lease to use the stadium, according to Hochul’s office.
State lawmakers will be asked to approve the state’s share of funding as part of the state budget, according to the governor’s office. Hochul and legislative leaders are in the final stretch of budget negotiations before the start of New York’s fiscal year on Friday.
The costs wouldn’t be limited to construction, however. If approved, the state and county would also chip in about $400 million total for maintenance, repair and capital improvements over the length of the agreement, paid out in annual installments and pushing the total public subsidies past $1.2 billion over three decades.
In a statement, Hochul touted the agreement as a win for taxpayers, claiming the project will “create 10,000 union jobs” and that the state investment “will be recouped by the economic activity the team generates.”
The new stadium would replace the team’s current home, Highmark Stadium, which first opened in 1973 and is one of the oldest in the NFL.
If approved, the $850 million in direct construction subsidies would surpass the $750 million in public funds Nevada authorized in 2017 to build Allegiant Stadium and lure the Oakland Raiders football team to Las Vegas. That was the previous record for a direct public subsidy, though other stadiums had a larger share of public funding, according to The Buffalo News.
Some state lawmakers – particularly those in New York City – were less than impressed with the agreement, and progressive-leaning advocates made clear they will lean on their fellow colleagues to push back.
Sen. Zellnor Myrie, a Democrat from Brooklyn, questioned the wisdom of spending state money on a football team’s stadium at a time when public-health facilities are struggling.
“Go Bills for sure, but this is a hard pill to swallow when the premier state-run hospital in New York City, SUNY Downstate, is in dire straits after being designated a COVID-19-only hospital by the previous administration,” Myrie tweeted.
Assemblymember Emily Gallagher, another Brooklyn Democrat, echoed that sentiment.
“I am against spending on sports before you spend on suffering people in your state,” she said.
The issue of publicly funding stadiums for professional sports franchises has been a topic of debate for decades, with many economists concluding that they lead to little economic benefit.
Michael Kink, executive director of the labor-backed Strong Economy For All Coalition, noted Forbes magazine has estimated the Pegula family to be worth more than $5 billion.
“What they're asking for is a subsidy for one of the top 10 richest families in the NFL,” Kink said Monday. “The lawmakers can say ‘no’ and move forward with a budget that works for all New Yorkers, not just for a few billionaires.”
It’s not likely lawmakers will be asked to vote specifically on the stadium agreement. Instead, the funding will likely be included among voluminous, yet-to-be-introduced bills that lay out the state budget.
Under the agreement announced by Hochul, Erie County will transfer ownership of the stadium and land to the state, who will lease it to the Bills. As it stands, Highmark Stadium is owned by the county.
The 30-year deal calls for the state to put $6 million annually into a “capital improvement fund” for repairs at the new stadium, according to Hochul’s office. Erie County will chip in about $4 million through a surcharge on tickets, parking and concessions. The Bills will contribute $900,000 a year to the fund in the form of annual rent payments.
On top of that, the state will pay $6.7 million a year for the first 15 years that the team can use for repairs, maintenance and infrastructure upgrades.
Combined, that’s a slight decrease from the $13.2 million the state had been paying annually under the 2013 deal, which also saw the state and county fund $95 million in upgrades to the current stadium.
In a statement, Terrence and Kim Pegula praised Hochul and said the agreement puts them a step closer to reaching their goal of building a stadium in Orchard Park.
“While there are a few more yards to go before we cross the goal line, we feel our public-private partnership between New York State, Erie County led by County Executive Mark Poloncarz, and the National Football League will get us there,” the Pegulas said.