by Chris Stevenson
It’s not that Buffalo practices Band-Aid economics, Buffalo is into a monster of it’s own invention; pot-hole economics. Case in point is Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, who said back on 9/12 that a deal to renovate Ralph Wilson Stadium before the end of the year is unlikely. In the meantime he offers us his pot-hole filler; an interim or “one year extension.” Whatever happened to this new lease agreement between our big powerful County Exec. and Ralph Wilson Jr., that was supposed to roll over the heads of little peons from the city without us having a say-so?
Maybe some of this talk going around about a new downtown stadium is starting to make Ralph wonder about a few things. Coincidentally this was during the same week that the man who revised the issue of a new downtown stadium was interviewed by Channel 2 reporter Claudine Ewing. And according to Pat Freeman, she didn’t want to go into the mechanics. “She just wanted to talk about tailgating (beer drinking) and parking.” Freeman says it was a 45-minute interview but the clip shows just over 3-minutes. If you know Ewing you understand. Claudine is part of the mainstream. I’m not trying to rhyme, it is what it is. If Buffalo status quo says no space, no infrastructure, no money, that’s the way she’s going to frame it. On the other hand, that Ralph is now thinking about it is good for good reason.
Freeman learned through an inside source that cement damage at the Ralph is estimated between $300-600 million in repairs alone. This only goes along with my prediction months ago that the renovations will go upwards of $400 million when it’s over and done with. This includes the original estimate of $220 million.
Back during the late-’60’s-mid-’70’s the was a wave of new stadiums and sports arenas, many of them built just outside of the cities they claimed to represent. In June of 1967 Wilson asked our confused community to build a new stadium for his AFL football team. War Memorial Stadium was old, small, and “rickety.” Even at the time Wilson made his request, the stadium was 30-years-old. Almost two-decades later sports journalist Brock Yates would write that it “looks as if whatever war it was a memorial to, had been fought within it’s confines.” It seems stadiums nowadays are considered “old” at five or ten years, before NFL owners are pressuring their city for a new one. The Ralph is the 6th oldest stadium in the league.
Shortly after Wilson’s call for a new facility the local Chamber of Commerce-like most groups in Buffalo who refuse to keep it simple-suggested that two stadiums should be built; one for football, and an expandable one for the baseball Bisons (just in case Major League Baseball was going to grant Buffalo a franchise). But only if it should be put in Amherst, and “that they should be built through joint bond issues of the Erie County and state governments (the state wanted nothing to do with it).”
After long months of debate, the City of Buffalo came up with a plan to build an open 2-sport stadium at the foot of Main Street (the then-Crossroads) if the county would fund it. Soon after an auto-dealer and a Texan came up with a plan that really appealed to the majority of local republicans on the county legislature; a proposal for a domed-stadium in Lancaster. They voted 19-0 for a project operating under the duel name of Dome Stadium Inc., (DSI) and Kenford. DSI issued a 20-year-contract to manage the stadium with no one smelling a rat. And why not, it’s initial appeal was it’s being outside of Buffalo, why be suspicious? (DSI/Kenford wanted a 40-year deal) White Flight was the in-thing throughout much of the nation, not to mention the worsening conditions of “The Rockpile.” Whenever it stops being feasible to repair a sports facility, plans for a new one are imminent. It’s the law of nature. Due to the current fact that there is a proposal to build a new stadium in Buffalo, Poloncarz is wrestling with nature.
Freeman talks about his project with Channel-2’s Claudine Ewing -cs
Buffalo News reporter Elwood Wardlow compared our disputes over the pros and cons of building a new stadium here to the difficulties of that of other cities: “But of all the fights, Erie County’s was easily the hardest and least productive (italics ours).” What else makes a hard city except hard heads? What else is a Buffalo but a bull that stands still? So it is on various issues our Buffalo has been watching other cities accomplish their dreams, while just nodding it’s head towards them.
During the ’60’s stadiums were cheap, generally built for anywhere between $50-100 million. In a city with a low cost of living like Buffalo, $50 million could have got you one. Back then our County Executive was B. John Tutuska; one of a long line of people wanting to move the Bills to Lancaster. Others wanted them in Amherst, there was even a threat of Ralph moving them to Seattle, using an anticipated first-round draft pick from USC named OJ Simpson as incentive for Buffalo to get moving on a new stadium. Simpson at the time wasn’t interested in coming to Buffalo, so Ralph flirted with the idea of going out west to him. Simpson was building a stadium in a city he initially hated, and wouldn’t begin playing in it until the year after he ran for a then-NFL record 2003 yards rushing.
In the beginning there was Edward H. Cottrell the auto dealer and local investor and Roy Hofheinz from out of Houston, TX, the operator of the Astrodome, which more or less was the inspiration for most dome stadiums. They both teamed up (Kenford/DSI) and produced several proposals. The legislature voted yes on most of the important votes until the obtuse hour of 4am on 1/19/71. The problem with the dome stadium plan 40-years-ago was too many people bouncing around too many financial figures and making too many changes that eventually saw the legislatures become fed-up, and bail out. All this does is allow for people on their own agendas to instill some chaos.
On 8/18/69 Tutuska signed a contract that basically tried to force DSI and the county into a stadium construction in Lancaster under threat of having to pay for one through increased taxes over the next 20 years. This move of counting domes before they were hatched was a strange arrangement requiring the county to pay for a stadium that would never be. Over time of course we would wind up paying for two stadiums once Rich Stadium (now Ralph Wilson Stadium) was built a few years later. After the legislature 9-10 vote that nixed the Lancaster dome a lawsuit was flied by seven area residents claiming to represent the Town of Lancaster; Kenneth C. Vashay of Tonawanda, Charles T. Hansen, Diana P. Miller of Lancaster, James R. Greer of Orchard Park, John C. Trefts Jr., (a bank president) of Orchard Park, Paul J. Robillard of Buffalo, and John H. Heitehaus of Buffalo, according to an article in the Tonawanda News. It was their hope this suit rendered the 9-10 vote by the Erie County Legislature null.
Cutting a long story short, the suit as well as the whole Lancaster Stadium debacle resulted in two politicians going to prison; Frederick Pordum, and Frank Ludera, over the bribery regarding the stadium votes, and bad health and a lost election for Tutuska, and a bad feeling regarding the whole issue regarding the domed stadium. The official line of why the Lancaster Dome deal broke down among some was because the location was too close to Lancaster High School, the truth is the dialogue should have never been permitted to take the facility out of the range of downtown Buffalo. Frank Schoenle (Frank Schoenle Construction) eventually would build the Orchard Park open-air stadium. Construction on the stadium formerly known as Rich was swift; starting on 4/4/72 and opening in time for exhibition season (as it was called then) on 8/7/73.
While Tutuska was trying to hog-tie the county into supporting an all-weather stadium in Lancaster, Poloncarz seeks to hog-tie us to a stadium in Orchard Park who’s time has passed. Make no mistake about it, the Ralph is becoming just as rickety as the old Rockpile was, and can’t last beyond another 5-10 years. Much of this is due to petty pride along the same lines of what happened during the late ’60’s-early-’70’s. Pride that really has plagued Buffalo for decades on most issues.
It looks like the discussions on this new proposal will stay focused on downtown. We can’t afford another array of kooks to Bogard in with their own not-so-secret AWBB (Anywhere But Buffalo) ideas. This is not even about the Bills per se, this is about all-purpose, all-weather, all-Buffalo facility. If it’s built, all sorts of “they will come” will flow in like biblical milk and honey, including the NFL.
The surrounding potential of the stadium stands to be immense. Freeman says it’s going to be a “job maker” from the construction, to the events. Bringing the Bills back to the urban area is an attraction comparable to Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium. No one is circling Mark Poloncarz’ Ralph renovation like Patrick Freeman and his new developmental team that will be introduced this coming Tuesday (10/23) in the Common Council Chamber, along with an update on the new stadium.
Chris Stevenson is a regular columnist for blackcommentator, Political Affairs Magazine, and a syndicated columnist. Follow him on Twitter, and Facebook, you don’t have to join any of them. Watch his video commentary Policy & Prejudice and The Network for clbTV. Sign his Petition to permanently Abolish the Death Penalty @ Change.org. Respond to him on the link below.