|Will Howard Milstein (l) go up against billionaire Tom Golisano (r).
There are encouraging signs these days that the Buffalo Bills will remain in Western New York despite the longtime fears that the team would be moved out of town by a new owner after the death of Ralph Wilson in March although a move out of the country to Toronto is still in the picture.
It now appears there are several prospective bidders for the estimated $870 million franchise after it is put on the blocks by Wilson's estate, possibly as early as July, and most seem committed to keeping the team in Western New York.
While absentee Niagara Falls landlord Howard Milstein has now emerged as one of those possible bidders, his icy relationship with Niagara Falls over the lack of development on his 142 acres of prime city property; his controversial ownership of the New York Islanders from 1998 – 200, and his botched bid with borrowed money to buy the NFL's Washington Redskins in 1999, work against him with NFL owners and others who have followed the career of the real estate tycoon.
It appears that possibly the strongest potential Bills' suitor is billionaire Rochester native (Paychex) Thomas Golisano who rescued the Buffalo Sabres from bankruptcy in 2003 and kept the team on home ice. Golisano sold the Sabres to another billionaire, Terry Pegula, in 2011 and now lives in Florida.
But sources say Golisano, who dined with Bills Chief Executive Officer Russ Brandon in Buffalo last week, has joined forces with a local businessman and is very interested in acquiring the Bills and will definitely be among the bidders when the team is put up for sale, possibly as early as July.
Among those in the Golisano camp is Steve Pigeon, a political adviser to Gov. Cuomo and a longtime friend of Golisano who pushed hard for the Sabres deal back in 2003 that kept the team in Buffalo. Pigeon declined comment on the possible bid by Golisano for the Bills, but other sources say the interest by Golisano is very strong as suggested by his dinner with Brandon last week, accompanied by former Sabres managing partner Larry Quinn.
|The land NFR owns cannot accommodate the traffic. It has no direct thruway access. A simple traffic study will show the utter futility of this site for the mass convergence of 80,000 fans at once. Four to 6 hour waits would be common. When the entire downtown gets 15,000 people on a busy day, there is gridlock.
But let's go back to Milstein, the billionaire Manhattan real estate mogul and major fundraiser and contributor to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is reportedly interested in buying the team although the Milstein camp communicated a "no comment" via email.
The governor has said over and over again that he is committed to keeping the Bills right here, and the Niagara Gazette reported that Cuomo's lieutenant governor, Robert Duffy, said last week during a visit to Niagara Falls that he was "glad" to hear of Milstein's reported interest in owning the team. The Cuomo administration has close ties to Milstein, and in 2011 Cuomo named Milstein chairman of the New York Thruway Authority.
I wrote a story back in September of 2012 that first disclosed a possible interest by Milstein in buying the Bills, reporting at the time that sources were telling me that Milstein may eventually be a player with the ability to put together a deal to buy the Bills after Wilson's passing, noting his close ties to the governor.
In that story, we reported that Milstein, with a personal net worth estimated at $500 million and a family net worth estimated as high as $5 billion, has been sitting on 142 acres of undeveloped property in Niagara Falls under the control of his private Niagara Falls Redevelopment (NFR) company, possibly waiting for the right opportunity to maximize his investment.
Milstein's Niagara Falls land holdings which have been previously estimated by its owners at the possibly inflated price of over $100 million, although there are still several properties in the 142-acre block that have not been acquired by NFR as the owners, which if they sell must sell to NFR per agreement in the original development plan in 1997 that turned over the land to Milstein and the late Eddie Cogan, have held out hoping to negotiate a better price than Milstein is offering.
Milstein may not be a good fit as the new owner of the Bills given his track record in Niagara Falls, according to city lawmaker Andrew Touma.
"He [Milstein] has not been a good partner in Niagara Falls," said Touma when asked about a possible Milstein bid on the football team. "His property has been sitting there [Niagara Falls] for more than 10 years and gone undeveloped. Maybe he was just waiting for something like this."
Touma said in his view "there has not been much communication between Milstein and city leaders over the years," suggesting a kind of absentee landlord relationship that has nurtured a "lack of trust" when it comes to Milstein's motives.
As for possibly locating a new stadium in the city, on Milstein's properties, Touma expressed concern about the likely traffic problems associated with trying to accommodate 80,000 fans and also with the financial drain on city taxpayers for things like law enforcement, traffic, and operating and game day expenses. Erie County's yearly subsidy to keep the Bills is well over $5 million not to mention the stadium's $130 million renovation package in the new lease that will cost state and Erie County taxpayers $95 million over the 10-year lease period.
While Touma sees a new stadium in Niagara Falls as unrealistic, the young lawmaker wants to see the team sold to a new owner committed to keeping the team in Western New York although Niagara Falls might not be the ideal spot, especially when it comes to access. The "straight shot" Thruway approach for fans traveling to Orchard Park for a home game would not be available to get to Niagara Falls, where road access is limited (international border, Grand Island Bridge, Parkway) and four and five hour delays would be common.
As for Milstein, his reported $800 million bid for the Washington Redskins and team's stadium in 1999 was withdrawn after Milstein learned that club owners were prepared to reject the bid on grounds the financial offer was heavily dependent on borrowed money. The NFL commissioner at the time, Paul Tagliabue, told the Wall Street Journal "the financing of the franchise was too highly leveraged with no equity infusion." Tagliabue said all but $50 million of the $800 million offer would have been borrowed money.
The contentious bid for the Redskins by Milstein generated news that a top Milstein executive, Anthony Bergamo, posed as "Anthony Burke" at a meeting with Redskins owners in Bermuda to try and gain intelligence to help Milstein make the deal. It didn't work and may have backfired against Milstein, further dooming his effort to buy the team. Bergamo is still with Milstein, serving as a top aide and president of Niagara Falls Redevelopment, the private company owned by Milstein that controls the 142-acre undeveloped parcel in the city.
Milstein was also the co-owner of the NHL's New York Islanders between 1998 and 2000, a period marked by controversy over the conditions of the Nassau Coliseum, the team's home arena, and threats by the owners to move the team and also have some home games played away from the Coliseum.
Other potential suitors to bid on the Bills after Wilson's heirs retain an investment bank to start the sale process include ailing Bills' Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, who would most definitely keep the team in Western New York; rocker Jon Bon Jovi, a former Arena Football League owner with close ties to Toronto businessman Larry Tanenbaum; and also the Jacobs family, most specifically Jeremy Jacobs, Jr., a Buffalo native and an executive with the family's Delaware North company who has also expressed a commitment to keeping the team in the Western New York community.
As of this writing, Milstein's controversial sports history, his poor record in Niagara Falls with his acres of undeveloped prime real estate, and the enormous traffic problems that would come with a Niagara Falls stadium, make his potential bid a long shot at best.
Kelly and company would certainly be welcome as Bills owners, and the Jacobs family with their strong local history, would also be seen as owners who would keep the team in Western New York.
Tom Golisano, with a net worth of close to $2 billion, saved a local team once back in 2003, and he might be perfectly positioned to make a credible bid for the Bills and emerge once again as a hero to local sports fans.
So far, only the Jon Bon Jovi interest in acquiring the Bills is seen as a potential threat to move the team out of Western New York. But for now, I think Golisano is ready, willing, and able to push forward and he looks like the leading candidate to make the deal and keep the team right here.