The city of Buffalo and the state of New York have formed a working group to help plan for a new stadium for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, a dilemma that has gotten more urgent in recent weeks. Long-time Bills owner Ralph Wilson died in March, meaning the franchise will likely be sold to new owners (two possible candidates: Donald Trump and Bon Jovi). To keep those new owners from moving the team to a new city, be it Toronto or Los Angeles or anywhere else, the city will likely have to replace the 41-year-old Ralph Wilson Stadium.
The New Stadium Working Group includes members of the Bills franchise, the State of New York, and Erie County, and it was formed earlier this year to assess options for either building a new stadium in Buffalo or upgrading the existing venue (the stadium is already undergoing previously-approved renovations this offseason). This week, New York state assemblyman Michael P. Kearns, who represents Buffalo, said that he wants to ensure that the public will have a seat at the table in future stadium discussions. Kearns thinks the meetings should be subject to state open records laws and even if they are not, he is preparing legislation that would require public access to the working group’s meetings, the Buffalo News reports:
Kearns, who on Monday sent a letter to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo seeking public access to the groups’ meeting, is now taking his efforts a step further. He said Tuesday he will introduce legislation to require the Erie County Stadium Corp. and the New Stadium Working Group to conduct its meetings in public. [...]
Kearns acknowledges the working group meetings may technically be conducted behind closed doors. But he argues that the public should have access because $95 million in state and county funds are already committed to improving the team’s current home in Orchard Park.
Working group officials don’t want this to happen, obviously, in part because they say that some meetings are already public and others involve sensitive information like potential sites for a new stadium. Divulging that to the public could “could lead to land speculation and possibly hike prices,” one of the officials told the News. And then there is the point raised by ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio, who noted that the “local urgency” of the situation “could be enough to ensure that, one way or another, the meetings will proceed in secrecy so that a plan can be formed and executed in the most efficient and effective way possible,” as if continuing to play in Ralph Wilson Stadium rather than running to whatever city will bilk its taxpayers to hand the franchise hundreds of millions of dollars is no option at all.
Giving taxpayers a seat at the table in Buffalo’s stadium talks probably wouldn’t change much. The Bills are wildly popular, and the public would almost surely bend over backward to give them a new stadium if it meant keeping the team from moving somewhere else. So what reason is there to deny the public a seat at the table, especially if stadium deals are as good for taxpayers and cities as stadium proponents often say they are? The reason, most likely, is that letting the public into these debates introduces the possibility that the process won’t go as smoothly as possible, that stadium proponents might lose, or at least not get the most favorable deal possible. That’s why politicians and teams and working groups like these often do whatever they can to keep the public from having a say. Even in Buffalo, a place that would do almost anything to keep the Bills, it’s much easier to get a deal done without having to worry about the voices or concerns of the people who’ll ultimately pick up the tab for a new stadium.