The billionaire owner of the Buffalo Bills appears poised to get a record amount of public funding for a new stadium in what critics are calling an unprecedented giveaway.
Gov. Kathy Hochul — a Buffalo native — is expected to announce in the next several days a deal in which New York State and Erie County agree to pay nearly $1 billion toward a new $1.4 billion stadium that will be located next to the current one, sources close to the situation told The Post.
That would be the most public money ever spent on building a US stadium, University of Michigan sports management professor Mark Rosentraub told The Post.
The proposal for public funding would be part of the New York budget that needs to be submitted by April 1 to the state Legislature. If it passes, the stadium, which would be designed by an architectural firm called Populous, would be open as soon as 2026.
Bills Owner Terry Pegula — a fracking mogul worth more than $7 billion — had threatened to move the team from Buffalo if he didn’t get public funding to build a new stadium. But there was debate, as The Post reported in September, about whether he was bluffing, considering how closely he’s associated with Western New York.
A veteran New York government lobbyist says it appears government officials bought into the threat — even if it was a bluff. “Everyone in government folded like a cheap suit,” the lobbyist, who didn’t want to be named and isn’t involved in the negotiations, told The Post. “I am stunned.”
The lobbyist said it appears negotiations have happened behind closed doors, the lobbyist said. The lobbyist slammed the idea of Pegula’s team getting a billion dollars in public funding when there are more pressing needs like universal child care.
Jim Wilkinson, a spokesman for Pegula Sports Entertainment, told The Post that an agreement isn’t final and that there was still work to do to seal the deal.
Still, he said: “The governor has done an outstanding job in getting everyone to the table together, and we continue to make strong progress.”
A spokesperson for Hochul said in response to a query from The Post: “Any reports of details are premature. As we have said repeatedly, negotiations are ongoing.”
Rosentraub, the Michigan professor and expert on public financing of stadiums, said the apparent New York deal is an outlier compared to other recent stadium projects, such as the Las Vegas Raiders domed stadium that costs taxpayers $750 million.
“The new stadium allows Vegas to host 13 to 15 events a year like concerts it couldn’t host before because of the summer heat,” said Rosentraub, who worked on the Vegas project. He said because of those events, there was some rationale for public investment.
But he said it’s hard to see the public benefit to a new Bills stadium, which won’t be domed — and therefore won’t be a hot ticket during Buffalo’s brutal winters. “If you say the only benefit is keeping the team that’s a tough one to justify,” he said.
The new stadium would be built next to the current one — which opened in 1973 — in the Buffalo suburbs.
There was discussion about building a new stadium in downtown Buffalo so it could revitalize the city. That’s what happened in cities like Minneapolis and Indianapolis, though they were expensive public projects.
“When making an investment in a stadium in a suburb it’s hard to find the public benefit,” Rosentraub said. “Without a realistic development strategy, I’d argue this funding is quite unusual.”
He said Hochul and her team would’ve been better-served offering perhaps $1 billion toward a new stadium — but only if it were to be build in downtown Buffalo and only if Pegula would’ve at least matched the public funds.
Pegula has argued that he’s already spent hundreds of millions of dollars in developments for Western New York — he also owns the Buffalo Sabres hockey team — and was reluctant to plow more than a billion dollars more of his own money into a new stadium for the Bills.
He let it be known it made little financial sense to spend $1 billion himself on a stadium in Buffalo because it is just too small a market, with a metropolitan area of a little more than a million people.