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Bills’ Lease Deal is Imminent, Reporter Has Learned

By Tony Farina

Anderson likes red wine and eggplant.
(T-B) Ralph Wilson, Bills owner;  Gov. Andrew Cuomo; Erie County Exec. Mark Piolncarz; Howard Milstein, future owner?

There is not a lot of good news coming out of One Bills Drive these days as the football team may not get more than a whiff of a playoff berth, some high-round draft picks and big-ticket free-agent signings are not playing up to their billing, and there is no stadium lease deal in place beyond this season.

If you toss in an uncertain ownership future, given the age of 94-year-old team owner Ralph Wilson who says the team will be sold after his passing, the Bills long-term future is anybody’s guess and the team’s current state offers little hope the 12-year playoff drought will end this season.

But there is a little bright spot out there and it is expected to come to fruition in the very near future, possibly within a week to 10 days. The Niagara Falls Reporter has learned that there has been solid progress in the stadium lease talks between the Bills and the state and the county and that a deal is expected to be announced shortly.

The current lease between the Bills and the state and county expires July 31, and the talks to keep the Bills playing at Ralph Wilson Stadium beyond that date were reported stalled last month and there was talk of a possible one-year interim agreement to keep the panic button in check.

But things have changed. We have learned from sources familiar with the negotiations that an announcement is expected shortly on a new lease barring any last-minute snag. The sources say the lease will be in the 8-to-10 year range that would give all parties time to evaluate the long-term viability of the aging stadium which will need more than $200 million in renovations just to stay viable in the short term.

The closest public hint of the pending announcement came last week from Bills’ CEO Russ Brandon who told the Associated Press “we continue to meet with county and state officials and have had productive sessions.”

Getting an agreement done has been a high priority of Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz who had hoped an extension of the lease could have been negotiated before the start of the team’s training camp.

In September, after reports of the talks being stalled surfaced, Poloncarz said “it’s a complicated three-part agreement, and you’ve got to get everybody on the same page,” conceding at the time that all the parties were not on the same page.
But not long after the unsettling reports of the stalled talks, Bills’ officials and Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy began to sound more optimistic about getting a deal done, perhaps worried about the negative fallout that was beginning to surround the negotiations and the team’s lack of commitment to Western New York which no one can really predict after Wilson’s passing.

In a statement, Duffy said the governor and his administration “are actively negotiating in good faith with the Bills,” and presumably with the county as well. On Monday, the governor’s press office did not respond to a call for comment on the state of the negotiations. County officials are equally tight-lipped, but other sources contacted by the Reporter confirm that a lease deal is imminent.

The Bills’ Scott Berchtold referred the Reporter to Brandon’s comment to the AP last week, saying that’s the most recent public update.

Some observers have noted increased activity in recent days at property owned by Niagara Falls Redevelopment in downtown Niagara Falls, with visitors coming in from New York City to look at the more than 140 acres owned by NFR.

We reported several weeks ago that there had been talk about an ownership group including NFR owner Howard Milstein possibly being interested in buying the team down the road and moving it to NFR property in the Falls, 45 minutes closer by car than Orchard Park for the coveted Southern Ontario fan market, a potential earth-moving development for Niagara Falls that would also keep the Bills in Western New York after Wilson passes.

Anthony Bergamo, chief executive officer of NFR, said over the weekend “we are not involved” in the current negotiations, but stressed again, as he has in the past, that NFR is pro-development and that whatever is good for the people of Western New York and the Bills “is a win-win for everybody.”

While there is nothing certain about the long-term future of the Bills, observers of the team, who do not want to be quoted publicly, believe Niagara Falls and Niagara County may well figure in the team’s future given the crumbling nature of Ralph Wilson Stadium and the vast amount of land in Niagara County even beyond Niagara Falls which would offer closer proximity to the most-important Southern Ontario Market which has helped generate huge business at the Factory Outlet Mall and the Niagara Falls Market.

Stay tuned.



Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Oct 30, 2012