A 1977 analysis revealed that, although justified as a catalyst for economic growth, the construction of new stadiums fails to generate local benefits. 25 years later, a similar study reaffirmed this contradiction between rationale and impact. Local and state governments, however, continue to ignore such evidence and instead promote the construction of new stadiums.
This past month, the Erie County Legislature approved the $1.5 billion proposal for a new Buffalo Bills stadium. Despite the estimated $6.7 billion net worth of team owners Kim and Terry Pegula, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul endorsed the use of public funds to finance this project. She claimed that the community will see their taxpayer dollars, which amounts to $1.1 billion, returned through “10,000 temporary construction jobs”. Like Gov. Hochul, the Erie County government has employed this narrative of public service. A closer look into the history of the Bills, however, reveals that the new stadium will conversely sidestep an opportunity to regenerate Buffalo City.
The historic War Memorial Stadium, or the original Bills arena, sits only 13 miles from the team’s soon-to-be new home. Nicknamed “The Rockpile,” this venue hosted football games from 1960 to 1973. The surrounding neighborhood, known as the Fruit Belt, was largely populated by low-income Black families. Socioeconomic disparities between this community and Buffalo City as a whole intensified during the 60s. As the phenomenon of white flight instigated further economic decline in the Fruit Belt, the owners of the Bills reacted accordingly and relocated to Orchard Park in 1973. The new facility, known as the Highmark Stadium, lacked accessibility due to the somewhat isolated location and limited transportation options. Mentioned above, a 1977 study refuting the local benefits of stadium construction was released four years later.
Fast forward to 2023, the Erie County Legislature approved construction plans to build a new Bills facility directly adjacent to the Highmark Stadium. The local government justified this project under the guise of long-term community growth, yet the venue only exacerbates the disparities that drove the Bills away in the 1960s. The median household income of Fruit Belt residents stands at about $30,000. In contrast, the Orchard Park community enjoys a median household income of $94,113. Therefore, the new stadium’s location fails to not only correct accessibility issues but also to dismantle economic and racial disparities within Buffalo City. In addition, the promise of 10,000 temporary jobs wrongly suggests that construction will benefit lower-income residents, some of whom live 13 miles away without accessible public transit.
Neither the historical impact of Highmark Stadium nor the vast body of research invalidating the local benefits of sports arenas appears to interest Buffalo City’s government. Furthermore, $418 million of the $1.1 billion taxpayer contribution comes from Seneca Nation, a recognized Native American tribe in western New York. Gov. Hochul acquired these funds after a 5-year-long legal dispute over casino revenue was decided in favor of the state. Seneca Nation president Matthew Pagels denounced this transaction, which was finalized after the freezing of tribe bank accounts, and argued that “[this] would happen to nobody else but an underserved nation”. One would have hoped that Gov. Hochul would at least re-invest a portion of these funds into indigenous justice efforts. Instead, the $418 million will solely finance a billionaire family’s football stadium.
Overall, the new Bills venue symbolizes a political disregard for taxpayers and marginalized community members. The local government is presenting a false narrative of local growth while simultaneously wasting an opportunity to fuel prosperity throughout Buffalo.