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New book from Mark C. Poloncarz details complicated stadium negotiations

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It was a doozy.

The Buffalo Bills’ lease for New Era Field with Erie County runs through the end of the 2022 season.

While there are passionate discussions currently on-going about whether the Bills’ stadium should undergo another round of renovations, or whether the Bills should build a brand-new downtown stadium, a new book written by Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz describes the complicated negotiations from the last stadium lease discussions.

Those talks ended with all parties signing a memorandum of understanding on a new 10-year lease between the state and Erie County on Dec. 21, 2012, but even after the principles had been agreed upon, it still took three more months of negotiations before a final agreement was ready to be signed.

In the book, Beyond the Xs and Os: Keeping the Bills in Buffalo, Poloncarz highlights a few of the critical moments during the negotiations.

In an excellent account of the negotiations, as written by The Buffalo News’ Tom Precious and Sandra Tan, Poloncarz shares how Bills representatives did not mince words when it came to how they felt about canceling the lease at any time — a move that would have set the stage for the franchise that had called Buffalo its home since its founding in 1960 to relocate to another city.

“When it came down to the right to terminate, they did say something that surprised us: they wanted the right to terminate immediately at any time during the new lease’s term,” Poloncarz wrote in a tweet. “We knew the team wanted to keep in the lease agreement the right to move upon sale, but we assumed there would be a locked-in period similar to the 1998 lease in which the team could not terminate the lease and relocate until at least the sixth year of the lease agreement. All I could imagine was Mr. [Ralph] Wilson dying in the first year of the new lease, the team being sold to an out-of-town owner, and then being moved prior to the next season.”

Poloncarz also revealed that, during negotiations, franchise representatives “expected (the Bills) to be sold and moved” once a sale had been completed following Wilson’s death.

Fortunately for Bills fans, that clause calling for the sudden and immediate termination of the new lease never made its way into negotiations.

Another one of those cross-roads moments occurred in mid-March, nine months before the memorandum of understanding was signed.

During the second set of formal negotiations between the state and Erie County, representatives from both sides had heard the Bills’ recent list of 36 separate projects — totaling $210 million — that the team wanted at then-Ralph Wilson Stadium as part of any negotiations to a new stadium deal that would keep the team in Orchard Park.

However, according to Poloncarz’ book, there was one major player that had yet to enter the negotiations: governor Andrew Cuomo and his administration, who had sent two state officials to the meetings, but who had also not allowed them to negotiate in the stadium lease talks.

Poloncarz said that without the proper engagement from Cuomo, “not much could be accomplished” at the sessions.

“I was starting to get a bit impatient with the state’s inaction. I could only imagine what the Bills were thinking at that point, and from the looks on their faces, it was not good,” Poloncarz, a Democrat whose book is being published as he seeks another four-year term as Erie County Executive, wrote in the book.

Among the book’s insights:

• New York State was slow to enter into negotiations, a fact that concerned both the Bills and Erie County, especially with the fact that owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. was in his 90s, his health wasn’t the greatest, and there were concerns that if Wilson passed away before an agreement could be reached, the Bills could be purchased by a new owner who would move the franchise.

• Gaining a non-relocation agreement, which included a $400 million penalty “bomb” if the team were to move, was a sticking point. Instead of that agreement, the team wanted lease language in which the Bills promised to reimburse the state and county stadium for renovation costs if the team moved. Poloncarz said that meant the Bills anticipated the likelihood that the team would move after Wilson’s death. That’s part of the reason the Bills didn’t seek a huge sum for stadium renovations or a new stadium, he said.

• Even after the announcement in December 2012 in which all parties signed a memorandum of understanding to all key elements of the deal, it took three more months of difficult negotiations before all parties were ready to sign a final agreement. “After the MOU, it pretty much fell apart,” Poloncarz told The Buffalo News. “We had to get everybody back together.”

All-told. the 10-year lease was for $271 million, with $130 million earmarked for renovations to the stadium that debuted in 1973.

Another key caveat in the negotiations? If the Bills opted to break the lease and leave Erie County prior to 2020, it would cost the Bills $400 million, with the team holding onto the option of buying out the lease’s remaining three years for $28 million.

It truly was a complicated negotiation process, one involving the highest members of government in the state. Check out the article from The Buffalo News for more details on the negotiations.

Thankfully for Bills fans, after Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula bought the Bills in 2014, the team’s future in Western New York no longer seems to be in doubt.

Who knows how intricate and complicated the next stadium discussions/negotiations will be?