The idea of the Buffalo Bills playing in a stadium developed on land owned by Howard Milstein's Niagara Falls Redevelopment (NFR) company, in Niagara Falls, is just the stuff that dreams are made of.
For the sake of disclosure, NFR and Milstein have advertised with the Reporter for years.
But it doesn't make any difference what we think of Milstein. It happens we're in the news business. And it's bad business to let misinformation percolate. Bad all around. Bad for any newspaper anywhere.
We reported before anyone else, when Ralph Wilson was still alive, that Milstein might target the Bills, armed with 142 acres, most of which is controlled by his NFR company.
Let's talk about the Buffalo Bills now and whether they're likely to play a game in Niagara Falls.
Anyone who ever came towards Niagara Falls during a big Art Park concert, or to the falls on the 4th of July, knows these three words: "Long traffic delays." When the Grand Island Bridge is backed up, the wait can be measured in hours.
NFR's property is in downtown Niagara Falls. The main route to get there is through Grand Island. There aren't enough alternate roads. Niagara Falls Blvd. is jammed even when there is a simple air show in the Town of Niagara.
There is no way - short of a multi-billion dollar re-engineering of the Thruway system - to get enough roadway to accommodate an NFL football crowd coming to NFR property, unless people leave at 6 am.
It's the geography.
Downtown Niagara Falls is in a corner -- surrounded on two sides by the Niagara River. On the other side of the river is Canada. This boxed in area will not accommodate 80,000 people - the number of attendees for a Bills game - coming at once.
It wouldn't even accommodate half that number.
When Nik Wallenda was set to wire walk across the falls two years ago, the New York State Department of Transportation issued warnings:
"Drivers can expect congestion on Interstate 190 between the South Grand Island Bridge toll barrier and Exit 23 (U. S. Route 62 - Niagara Falls Blvd.), and on the Robert Moses Parkway from Interstate 190 to downtown Niagara Falls."
There were probably not more than 15,000 people who came to see Wallenda on the American side. Only 4,000 people were permitted onto Goat Island. The Niagara Gazette estimated between 7,000 and 10,000 people "packed into the New York State Park."
Even with that, it took an hour to leave downtown after the event.
Even on big holidays nowhere near 80,000 people come to the Niagara Falls State Park. Indeed, the park has only 1,200 parking spots.
The hasty assumption people make is that because a lot of people go to the falls, a lot of people can go to a downtown Niagara Falls game.
But people drift into town to see the falls, sometimes in a steady flow, sometimes in a trickle. Never do 80,000 people converge at once.
Frank D'Agostino, the largest scenic bus tour operator in Niagara Falls, estimates that no more than 30,000 people visit Niagara Falls on July 4th, Memorial Day or Labor Day - the three busiest days of the year. These 30,000 don't come at once, but come and go over a 16-hour period. Even so, gridlock can last hours. So what would happen if 80,000 people came at the same time?
"By the time you get out of the parking lot, you might just as well turn around, because next week's game will be starting," said Niagara Gazette Columnist Ken Hamilton, when discussing the impossibility of accommodating NFL football traffic in downtown Niagara Falls.
Longtime parking lot manager Nick Catanzaro once told the Reporter, "On busy days, downtown gets 'congealed.'" Add it up: 1,200 spots at the state park;, 1,800 spots at the Rainbow Ramp; 600 spots miscellaneous lots; 300 street parking spots. When those 4,000 spots - which might mean 10,000- 15,000 people - are taken, "the roads from Grand Island to Buffalo Ave. - are backed up," he said. "Then people can't get in and out."
What Catanzaro said is further supported by simple arithmetic: The total number of hotel rooms in the City of Niagara Falls is 3,200 - which means, even multiplying occupants at four to a room, on busy nights, there are 12,800 people staying during the peak tourist season. That means there are no giant crowds. The park, which abuts NFR land, is not designed to take large numbers. The park makes its impressive numbers of visitors by its artful management of steady "stay three hours and leave" visitation.
"If you tried to get 80,000 people here for a Bills game, the delays would be so long there would be people running out of gas; people outside urinating because they couldn't hold it. You'd be stymied. People wouldn't know what to do. They would have to sleep outside," said D'agostino, a lifelong resident of the falls, who operates his Cataract Tours bus station adjacent to the park.
Of course, Milstein might know this already. He said he would keep the Bills in Western New York. He did not say he would locate them in Niagara Falls. He might move them to an area where heavy traffic could be accommodated, wherever that might be.
2. Who pays?
The current corporate welfare mentality of the sharpies who own NFL teams is to take from the people - or threaten to move the team. Team after team has bled taxpayers so that fans can have their candy on Sundays. (Too bad every city was not civilized enough to refuse the corporate welfare schemes and NFL owners could not extort them).) But, since the nation is not civilized, politicians have succumbed to this extortion scheme, since losing a team is a badge of dishonor and something fans will vote against (being oblivious or unconcerned that others must work longer hours to pay taxes to support someone else's sport), and despite studies suggesting that owning a team is a net economic loss for a city if it has to subsidize it.
So who will subsidize the building of a stadium in Niagara Falls? Niagara County has a population of 214,000. Erie County has a population of 919,000. The politicians have arranged for the taxpayers of Erie County to subsidize the Bills for decades. Niagara County has never chipped in. Niagara County doesn't have the taxpayer base to build a stadium and support a corporate welfare NFL owner. Will Erie County taxpayers pay to subsidize a Milstein team playing in Niagara County?
Suppose Niagara County taxpayers were asked to fund the Buffalo Bills while they play in Orchard Park? How would they feel? Why would anyone expect Orchard Park taxpayers to support the Bills in Niagara Falls?
3. County Turf War
There will likely be a turf war between Erie and Niagara Counties. Anyone who has studied these political battles in the past knows that, in a battle between Buffalo and Niagara, Buffalo wins. There will be pressure on Erie County politicians to keep the team "home" and have a more centralized and more people friendly location than Niagara Falls.
4. What have you
done for me lately?
The fact that Milstein is a "friend" of Gov. Andrew Cuomo is an argument in Milstein's favor. But there are other friends of the governor who will be likely to bid on the Bills.
'He is my friend who helps me today and tomorrow" is the politician's credo. With that as the yardstick, anyone can be a politician's friend, if he has money.
Indeed, except for Donald Trump, everyone mentioned to date as possibly being interested in the Bills is, in fact, a friend of Cuomo; Jeremy Jacobs, Robert Rich, Tom Golisano, Milstein, even Bon Jovi all have ties to Cuomo.
Anyone who wants to keep the Bills in New York has the ability to befriend this governor, who is seeking re-election and then perhaps "higher" office. Since he wants to win the entire state this time, he appears seriously committed to keeping the Bills in Western New York and has said so repeatedly. But since it is likely that a decision will not be made until after the election, Cuomo , only has to keep the Bills somewhere in New York State to win the right to say 'I kept the Bills for my constituents" when and if he seeks higher office.
5. Bigger Men
If someone bigger than Milstein, someone with deep pockets like Milstein and a pioneering spirit, someone like Tom Golisano, enters the picture, someone who may be less dependent on "friendship" and independent of the need for working people to have their money taken by force (taxation) so that he can have a football team, it could be the game changer. When Mark Hamister tried to buy the NHL's Buffalo Sabres back in 2002, he needed $40 million in taxpayer subsidies. He wanted the middle class to work and pay more taxes so he could own a hockey team. He couldn't get the public subsidy and Golisano stepped in and used his own money. An old-fashioned businessman, Golisano grew up during a time when welfare was for poor people, if they could even get it, and not billionaires. That might give someone like him an advantage.
6. Milstein does not
own all the land
While NFR has assembled property in the area within their, arguably, expired "preferred developer" footprint, and the state could use eminent domain to seize the rest, the fact remains that NFR does not own all of the 142 acres being discussed as their potential stadium site. There are scattered, privately-owned properties within the acreage whose owners are refusing to sell to NFR either because they want to remain there or because they feel that NFR has offered them prices that are grossly under market value.
Other Bills' suitors may have land ready to develop on the day they make the bid. Milstein, if he intends to use his Niagara Falls holdings, probably won't own all the land and would have to acquire the remainder. It might be a disadvantage.
7. Bad History With
Although there are two sides to every story, Milstein did not appear to exit gracefully, or behave, in the near unanimous opinion of NFL's owners, very admirably the first time he tried to buy an NFL team (the Redskins, 1999). Most of the owners are still here and some perhaps have long memories. The owners embarrassed Milstein the last time, questioning the lack of equity in his $800 million offer, nearly all of it borrowed money. He may be an unpopular suitor. At the end of the day, it is not the governor but the NFL owners that must approve the bidder.
Since many have as much or more money than he does, he can't buy them as one might buy a governor.
8. Bigger, more
There could be big men after this team and famous ones, too. Out-of-state interests will be able to provide a more glamorous name than Buffalo that would appeal to the league. While Cuomo might be willing to burden state taxpayers into paying to keep the team in New York State (Cuomo, of course, has no money of his own to invest), the NFL, and the estate of Ralph Wilson, will not likely invest money (or take less than they can get) to keep the team in a small market. There are few smaller or less glamorous markets than Buffalo, except perhaps the inaccessible (by traffic) Niagara Falls.
9. Development Track Record May Factor
Whether fair or not, Milstein's competitors will almost certainly bring up the fact that when NFR came to Niagara Falls, more than 16 years ago, they promised big development and got certain preferences. They missed all their developmental deadlines. Critics say they crippled the neighborhood, forcing people within their footprint to either sell to them for less than market value or stay in a virtual ghost town as NFR hoarded hundreds of vacant properties and demolished them into empty lots.
This well-known, decade-long criticism might well become a factor in deciding who will be chosen to develop and who will not.
10. Wrong Use
Track record aside, to take 100 acres out of downtown Niagara Falls to accommodate a football team that plays 10 times a year would mean that much of downtown would be carved out to build a stadium that will be empty 355 days a year. There is a good reason why football stadiums should be, and often are, in lower density areas with good thruway access. Of course, the rebuttal is that NFR could develop all kinds of spinoff developments: a convention center, stores, hotels, and other attractions, things they were supposed to build more than a decade ago. But is the demand there? By adding 10 football events per year will that suddenly make it happen? If it was true, then Orchard Park would have seen spinoff next to Rich (now Ralph Wilson) Stadium. When the state gifted the convention center to the Seneca Indians to build the casino in 2003, there was also spinoff promised but it hasn't happened.
While some, perhaps unfairly, blame NFR for the zero spinoff surrounding the Seneca Casino (much of the area adjacent to the Seneca nation is either a ghetto or vacant empty lots, and NFR owns much of it) and, while some say, if NFR had developed their property as they promised, Niagara Falls would be a boom town, it is unclear whether NFR ever had the market demand, then or now.
Critics contend that NFR only held the land to flip - and misled the people of Niagara Falls. Some of these critics have staged protests of the company. But that is history. For a massive, multi-faceted developmental spinoff to occur now, one that will create some kind of critical mass, NFR will need to build millions in square footage and probably require hundreds of millions in state subsidies to make it economically feasible. NFR's Roger Trevino admitted this to the Reporter when the topic first came up more than a year ago. In short, can NFR use the Bills as bait to get hundreds of millions in taxpayer subsidies? Where is the market study that will prove this need?
The City of Niagara Falls lost its convention center 10 years ago, a center that had a capacity of 10,000 people. It was given to the Seneca Casino, and the city downsized to a conference center that can hold 3,000 people. Nobody (other than this newspaper) ever publically complained about the loss, or that the demand is too great for the conference center to handle. There may be no demand for spinoff development and hence, absent taxpayers funding something that there is no demand for, an empty stadium will sit dark, with long, deepening shadows, only to awaken 10 times a year, further dooming downtown in the future to the same kind of vacancy it has had for 16 years with NFR in the past.
At the end of the day, people might not expect that these 10 points are sufficient reasons for Niagara Falls not to get the Buffalo Bills. Maybe some of them are unimportant. I won't argue about that. But look at the number of them. And what have we got on the other side? All we've got is that maybe you and I love the Buffalo Bills.
Well, we'll have some rotten nights after the team moves to West Seneca or New York City or Los Angeles, but that will pass.
If all those reasons don't mean anything to you, then forget it and we'll make it just this: It won't happen because there aren't the roads to accommodate the team and any traffic study will prove that in 10 minutes.
The Bills playing in Niagara Falls on NFR land?
It's the stuff that dreams are made of.
Only problem is, the truth doesn't dream.
"I'll have some rotten nights after I report that the Bills will be going over to West Seneca ...
But that will pass."