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By Frank Thomas Croisdale

Western New York has but one seat at the big people's table of American cities and it is in the form of our NFL team, the Buffalo Bills. They and they only make us relevant on the national stage. Take away the Bills and Buffalo becomes Omaha, Neb., or Columbus, Ohio.

The Albright-Knox Art Museum, the Darwin Martin House and Shea's Performing Arts Theater are gems to be sure, but beyond the shores of Lake Erie, and often within them as well, they are virtually unknown to the majority of the populace.

The Bills, on the other hand, tie us to the big time. Meet someone from New York or Chicago and chances are it won't be long before they're telling you how much they liked the old K-Gun offense or how deeply they loved O.J. -- you know, before he lost his mind and all.

The problem with having an NFL franchise is that they're expensive to maintain and the Bills have intimated that it soon will be time for taxpayers to reach a lot deeper. The team has hired world-renowned sports facility architectural firm Populous to do a study of aging Ralph Wilson Stadium and make suggestions for needed improvements. Those improvements are expected to cost north of $100 million, and John and Jane Taxpayer are going to have to pick up the tab.

When I heard the news, two thoughts sprang to mind: The first was "good." Bills' owner Ralph Wilson turned 93 recently and has no declared plan of succession in place that would keep the team in Buffalo beyond his death. A long-term lease tied to those improvements would make it far more difficult for a new owner to pull up stakes and head out of the Niagara Frontier.

The second thought was "small potatoes." Many non-football loving taxpayers here will be very vocal about their displeasure at having to pony up to update a stadium that only sees full-capacity use nine times per year (with the Bills playing two preseason and seven regular-season games at the Ralph).

They will gripe and complain that the money should go to road infrastructure, programs for the poor or to construct another museum. Don't listen to them -- losing the Bills would cast a pall on Western New York unseen since President William McKinley was assassinated at the Pan-Am Exposition in 1901.

Major cities spend major bucks to solidify their professional sports franchises, and without question the NFL is the lion of that jungle. While the $100 million will be seen as crippling here, it is really a pedestrian number by NFL standards and is the very least that needs to be done to keep the Bills in Buffalo.

What is the bigger move? What could the people of Western New York do to make a national statement that the Bills are our team, the NFL our birthright, and that we are serious about being a real player at a poker table many think has reached a level too steep for our wallet?

Eschewing the stadium renovations in favor of building a state-of-the-art domed stadium would be the first shot across the bow that I'd fire to serve that notice nationally. Putting that stadium in downtown Niagara Falls would be the second.

Long before the current stadium was constructed in Orchard Park in the early 1970s, there was a plan to build a dome in Lackawanna. That plan fell through, and as Bills fans we've spent decades convincing ourselves that our teams have had some sort of competitive balance playing outdoors in the cold and snow of Buffalo. The team's woeful record for the majority of those years would suggest that assumption is a false one.

Today's NFL is a passing-heavy, XBOX-inspired offensive assault that has defenses reeling, and this season has a whole handful of QBs on pace to break Dan Marino's decades-old record for most passing yards in a season.

Putting the Bills in a dome increases their chances of maintaining Coach Chan Gailey's high-octane offense, thereby increasing the likelihood that the team makes the playoffs and adds to their revenue stream.

Putting that dome in downtown Niagara Falls would go a long way in aiding team CEO Russ Brandon's plan of regionalizing the franchise as a means of obtaining long-term financial stability.

Since Brandon was handed the reins, he has made two bold moves that have had a dramatic impact on the team's bottom line. The first was to move training camp from the outpost of Fredonia to affluent suburban Rochester and St. John Fisher College. The second was to consummate a five-year, $78 million deal to play an annual home game in Toronto.

The result has been a 30 percent increase in the team's annual season ticket base. That increase has come from the corporate base of Rochester and from an influx of fans from Southern Ontario making the trek across the Peace Bridge on game day.

A dome in the Falls would increase those numbers significantly for both feeder markets. For Canadians, the lure of outlet-mall shopping would provide a formidable one-two punch to get them over the Rainbow Bridge. Folks coming from Rochester would have a plethora of hotels to keep them overnight and a 24-hour casino to provide non-stop entertainment, both before and after the game.

Where would the dome be built? How about we take a cue from Bob Seger and put it "down on Main Street." Imagine clearing out a majority of the unused buildings there and replacing them with a shiny new testament to modern technology. What a boon that would be to entrepreneurs like John Hutchins, who opened the immaculate Rapids Theatre when there was little on Main Street but rolling tumbleweeds.

The parking lot revenue alone would create jobs for thousands. Don't forget that a domed stadium can be used year-round, meaning Niagara Falls could house revenue-churning acts like monster truck pulls and WWE wrestling.

None of it will be cheap. Cowboys Stadium, which opened in Arlington in 2009, reportedly cost $1.15 billion to build. The stadium in Niagara Falls would cost at least that much and probably a bit more.

It's not quite the pipe-dream that it would appear. To make it happen, there would have to be a concerted and dedicated effort from all politicians, including our rarely seen U.S. senators, to put relentless pressure on Albany to find ways to free up the funds.

The Bills are New York state's only NFL team; the Jets and Giants play in New Jersey. Thus the hefty taxes the team pays are the only ones going into the coffers of the Empire State.

The casino and power plant here generate untold millions for the state, most of which is never rebounded back to our area. The power brokers in the state capital need to show the people here that we are more than red-headed stepchildren.

They also need to show the neglected, down-trodden city of Niagara Falls, home to the world's most famous waterfall, that they care. Putting a dome stadium downtown to be the cornerstone of revitalization would be a great way to make that happen. Keeping the Bills in Western New York after Wilson's death is the type of feather that appeals to publicity-seeking pols, and it's a card that needs to be played now.

Once Wilson is gone, all bets are off and the Bills may be lost forever. Building a new dome stadium would make a lot of taxpayers find new meaning in the team's theme of "The Bills make me wanna shout!"

Tell them to put a lid on it -- then tell them to put it in Niagara Falls.

(Frank Thomas Croisdale is a contributing editor at the Niagara Falls Reporter and the author of "Buffalo Soul Lifters," a collection of true stories about the quirky, warm-hearted, generous people of our region. Niagara native Croisdale has worked in the local tourism industry for many years and is a founding member of the grassroots group Niagara Rises. E-mail him at nfreporter@roadrunner.com.)

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Nov. 1, 2011