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Building from the past to the future

Guest column submitted by Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.

Last month, our community was saddened at the passing of Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson Jr., the only owner the team has ever had and the man who put Buffalo on the NFL map.

We are known internationally for the Buffalo Bills and for the passion our fans have for their team. We want to keep it that way, so it is important to note that the lease agreement signed by Erie County, New York state and the Bills in 2013 keeps the team playing here in Erie County through at least 2020.

That agreement is also spurring numerous “fan-friendly” renovations at the stadium in Orchard Park, and I would like to highlight both developments, this month.

When my administration negotiated the lease on behalf of the people of Erie County, we sought an agreement that protected taxpayers’ interests and kept the team here, for as long as possible.

In a year-long negotiating process that involved much compromise among the three parties, we emerged with a lease that contained a strong non-relocation agreement and also had significant investments from the state and, for the first time, the Bills themselves.

Under the non-relocation agreement, if the owner of the Buffalo Bills attempted to move the team during the next 10 years, Erie County and the state could enforce the non-relocation terms in a court of law, which would be based in Erie County.

In the unlikely event that a court allowed such move, the team would be required to pay a $400 million penalty to the county and state.

Only during one short window during the seventh year of the agreement may the team pay $28.3 million as a “buyout” penalty, said window being in direct relation to a new collective bargaining agreement with the NFL and NFL Players’ Association.

Both the non-relocation agreement and the commitment to funding are indicators of how dedicated all parties were to creating an agreement that is fair and solid, and keeps the Bills playing in Erie County.

Another important part of the lease involves the ongoing renovations at Ralph Wilson Stadium, a venue that, in spite of its age, still has some of the best sight lines in the NFL.

I was recently joined by officials from the state and the Bills to tour the site and see the improvements first hand. The stadium is a hive of activity, with workers’ opening up concourses, installing cable, upgrading restrooms, building new concession areas and scoreboards, improving seating and creating a much more fan-friendly atmosphere.

There is also construction going on at a new Bills store, fan lounge areas and stairwells and access points to the stadium bowl. Work is continuing at a fast pace, with the goal of completion by the preseason opener, giving Bills fans a stadium that is substantially different and far better than what they’ve seen.

While we mourn Wilson’s passing, it is good to know that a foundation has been laid to keep “his” team, the Buffalo Bills, here in Erie County, for a long time.

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