ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (WIVB) — The Erie County Executive believes a $400 million penalty for moving the Buffalo Bills to a new town prevented potential buyers from bidding for the team after the death of founder Ralph Wilson in 2014.
That’s one of many declarations shared by Mark Poloncarz in “Beyond the X’s and O’s: Keeping the Bills in Buffalo”. It details the 2012 negotiations between the county, New York State, and the Bills to extend the lease for the team to play at Ralph Wilson Stadium, which has since been renamed New Era Field. The 10 year lease runs through the 2022 NFL season.
The framework of the deal was announced at the stadium on December 21st, 2012. It was finalized the following spring.
The book is set to be released on September 1st.
“We needed to get a strong lease to keep the team in town because in all likelihood, Mr. Wilson would not outlive that lease,” Poloncarz told News 4. That’s exactly what happened.
“If Mr. Wilson had died before we got the lease negotiated, I do not think the team would be here.”
Which, as Poloncarz wrote, made the state’s “inaction” frustrating in the early days of negotiations. It wasn’t until August, less than a year before the expiration of the previous lease, that the county executive says state officials seemed to get serious. It happened after Sen. Charles Schumer held a press conference at the stadium.
“It kind of kicked in gear the folks in the (Andrew) Cuomo administration who were like, ‘We better get involved because we don’t want Chuck Schumer to get all the glory,” Poloncarz alleged.
In a prepared statement, Jason Conwall, a spokesperson for Governor Cuomo said, “Keeping the Bills in Buffalo is and always will be a top priority for this administration in Western New York. We fully understand what the team and organization mean to the community, and during the lease extension we provided the financial support necessary to ensure they wouldn’t be going anywhere. The state and county have worked closely with the Bills for years, with Ralph Wilson and now the Pegulas, and we look forward to continuing this successful partnership for many more years to come.”
“I can assure you it was a number one priority of Governor Cuomo,” said Bob Duffy, Cuomo’s former Lieutenant Governor who was appointed to the state’s negotiating team in September 2012.
“Nobody intentionally lagged behind,” Duffy continued. “Having worked in government for a while, sometimes communication coming up might not be as clear an reach somebody like the governor like it should. But at some point it did reach.”
In fact, as Duffy tells it, Cuomo deserves credit for sealing the deal during an October 2012 negotiating session in Detroit. That meeting included Duffy, Deputy Erie County Executive Rich Tobe, and Jeff Littmann representing Ralph Wilson and the Bills. With the side “millions” of dollars apart, Duffy called Governor Cuomo.
“I said, ‘Jeff, I talked to the governor. The governor said why don’t we split the difference,'” Duffy recalled. “Jeff had a look on his face, a little surprised at first. He said, ‘Really? Could you give us a few minutes?’ So Jeff and the Wilson team leave again. It may have been five or 10 minutes, they came back in. Jeff had a bottle of champagne and several glasses.
“We had a toast. We had a deal.”
“You never get exactly what you want,” Poloncarz said. “The Bills didn’t get exactly what they wanted. At one point they wanted another game in Toronto. They wanted to be able to leave at any time during the lease. We were not going to allow that. We didn’t get everything we wanted either.”
But the county did get the Non-Relocation Agreement, which included the “$400 million bomb”, as Poloncarz refers to it. In his book, Poloncarz notes how only three bids were placed for the Bills after Wilson’s death. Terry and Kim Pegula would buy the team for $1.4 billion.
“I was pretty sure the lease’s strong non-relocation clauses were the main reasons for the limited number of bids,” Poloncarz writes.
Poloncarz is running for his third term as county executive this year. He faces a challenge from Legislator Lynne Dixon, an Independent from Hamburg.
“I don’t think it’s any small coincidence that (the book’s) release comes shortly before the election,” Dixon said.
“I would have liked to have had it done last year,” Poloncarz responded. “That was the goal, to have it released last year.
“But it wasn’t ready.”
Dixon calls the book “inappropriate”, saying the county executive shouldn’t try to profit off of what he was expected to do as an elected official.
“There is a certain level of trust that’s expected (between the county, state, and team),” Dixon said. “Now you wrote a book, a tell-all book where you said the state was terrible at this, the Bills ownership that. So now where’s the trust when you’re going into negotiations again?”
Whoever wins the county executive race will be in the driver’s seat for the county when those negotiations ramp up in the coming years.
“I think everything is on the table,” Dixon said. “As county executive, you put the taxpayers and the citizens of Western New York first. You also understand the passion that residents here have for the Buffalo Bills.”
In the book, Poloncarz writes that the county’s DPW believes New Era Field could last another 25-30 years. The team is currently conducting a study of its stadium-needs.
“They’re not willing to do some really heavy duty negotiating until they have that report,” Poloncarz said.