ALBANY – In a week of competing claims about how much the Buffalo Bills want from the state for a new football stadium, one thing has become clear: The number is $1.4 billion and the team has asked for the project to be fully funded by state and county taxpayers.
But what has become increasingly unclear during the same week is whether Gov. Andrew Cuomo will play any role in what the team eventually gets.
Following a scathing report from State Attorney General Letitia James that found credible claims from 11 women that Cuomo had sexually harassed them and revelations that criminal probes of the governor are underway, a new poll Friday by Quinnipiac University said 70% of New York registered voters want him to resign. Calls for his resignation have increased as has the speed with which an impeachment probe is expected to begin.
Context about how the governor runs his administration is important, not just for the Bills' stadium talks, but for other issues, including rising Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations across the state.
The governor, unlike any governor going back to at least to the years when his father, Mario Cuomo, was governor, is well-known for having a small circle of trusted advisers and for micromanaging everything from public infrastructure projects to the design of vehicle license plates.
His potential departure from office – whether by resignation or impeachment – has redirected the governor’s time and energies to a process that now involves trying to salvage his political future and legacy.
The impact on the stadium talks: a halt to any decision-making anytime soon, various sources say.
“It’s a temporary pause, not a setback," said a person who knows all the players in the stadium talks – Cuomo, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and the Pegulas who own the team. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.
The person said that the players in the negotiations are operating under the assumption that Cuomo will be gone from office, either sooner by his own resignation or by an impeachment process that could come in early September on the state Assembly floor.
Once Cuomo departs whether through resignation or almost-certain impeachment, the individual said he is confident that negotiations will resume in earnest with "the same excitement and passion to get a done deal."
Speculation in Albany is that Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Buffalo Democrat who would replace Cuomo if he resigns or is impeached, will have an even greater motivation to make a deal that will keep the team in Western New York for potentially decades longer.
The Cuomo administration Friday did not directly comment on the stadium talks in light of the fresh legal and political troubles that erupted for Cuomo this week.
Instead, it pointed to a comment issued last week by his budget office that said Cuomo is “committed” to keeping the Bills in Western New York and that the administration is “fully engaged with the Bills and other stakeholders” in the matter.
The Buffalo News last Sunday reported that the Bills were seeking at least $1.1 billion in taxpayer assistance – grants, tax breaks and other possible funding streams – to finance a new stadium. The report said the team is pushing to build the stadium in Orchard Park next to its present site instead of downtown Buffalo, as some have advocated for years. But people with knowledge of the talks say a downtown site, given land acquisition and other costs, would be considerably higher than its present, county-owned parcel in Orchard Park.
Pegula Sports & Entertainment disputed the $1.1 billion figure, but would not say if the amount they wanted from taxpayers was higher or lower.
This week, multiple sources with knowledge of the talks confirmed to The News the actual amount the team tossed out in its first proposal: $1.4 billion.
The Cuomo administration and Pegula Sports & Entertainment, the owners of the Bills, declined to comment. Poloncarz declined further comment Friday beyond what he said in a news briefing this week.
Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat and a self-described serious Bills fan, told The News that she had been informed the team’s ask totaled about $1.5 billion and that it was to be fully funded by the state and county.
Sources also recently said Pegula floated to government negotiators that they also wanted potentially upwards of $400 million in state and county money to make upgrades to KeyBank Center, the downtown Buffalo arena that is home to the Buffalo Sabres.
Pegula officials said they never asked for any taxpayer money for upgrades at KeyBank Center. But again on Friday, a source with knowledge of the talks said that was not the case and that the initial plan floated by Pegula’s representatives was for $100 million in upgrades to the arena.
The News also reported last Sunday that a source said the Pegula representatives never directly threatened to move the team from Orchard Park if the state and county did not agree to the 100% public financing proposal. But, a well-placed source said, the team made it clear that other cities are eager to get an NFL franchise in their communities.
As for the state of talks, the person who knows all the players at the negotiating table described things as being “at a pause” since the crisis worsened for Cuomo’s status as governor this week. But the person said that wasn’t a bad thing. “It gives everybody an opportunity to reassess their positions," the individual said.
Other sources last week described the Pegulas as anxious to cut a deal swiftly, but that the state is still in the process of doing a “due diligence” look at everything from the personal wealth of Pegula – he is a multibillionaire – to the team's value and financial performance to stadium deals cut in other cities in recent years.
News staff reporter Tim O'Shei contributed to this report.