Bills Stadium Hunt Gives Cuomo Chance to Win Back Buffalo

Governor Andrew Cuomo, who faces re-election, is spending $1 billion on economic development in Buffalo. For voters in New York’s second-largest city, nothing he does may matter more than keeping the Bills from moving.

The future of the only one of New York’s three National Football League teams to play in the state was thrown into question when owner Ralph Wilson died in March. Wilson’s family plans to sell, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell says a new stadium is needed to keep the team financially viable.

Cuomo, a Democrat who lost the eight-county region around Buffalo in the 2010 election, hired a firm last week to find as many as four potential sites. The governor has called the Bills an “iconic team” that must stay in the area to benefit the Western New York economy. A group of Toronto investors wants to buy the team and move it to Canada, according to CBS Sports.

“Voters in Buffalo are not listening to talk about corruption in Albany, or fracking, or public campaign-finance reform,” said Michael Caputo, the former campaign manager for Republican Carl Paladino, the Buffalonian who ran against Cuomo four years ago. “They’re listening to one thing, and one thing only, and that’s what’s going to happen to our Bills, and the governor sees it as an asset to his campaign.”

Cuomo, 56, is set to formally enter the race at the Democratic party’s state convention this month. Turning around the vote count in the Buffalo region may be key to a big win in November, which could propel him into a presidential run.

Bright Spot

Buffalo, a city of about 260,000 on Lake Erie, is about half the size it was in 1960 when the Bills were established by Wilson. As the city struggled economically, the Bills remained a bright spot -- even when they were losing -- as fans gathered in the parking lot of Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park on Sundays for tailgating before games.

Today, the economic health of the city is improving, and cranes can be spotted on the skyline for the first time in decades. Buffalo had an average annual unemployment rate in 2013 of 7.5 percent, the lowest since 2008, and down from 8.5 percent in 2010. New York’s current budget includes the final $680 million the state will borrow to fulfill Cuomo’s $1 billion investment promise, which has already attracted companies such as International Business Machines Corp.

‘Outright Neglect’

“Governor Cuomo is making up for decades of inaction and outright neglect from the state,” Rich Azzopardi, a spokesman, said in an e-mail. Buffalo’s construction boom and a 10-year lease struck with the Bills in 2012 “are tangible results of what happens with just a few years of the region receiving the attention that it rightfully deserves,” he said.

The Bills agreed to the lease after Cuomo promised to invest $54 million as part of a $130 million stadium renovation. The Bills can’t exit the deal without paying a $400 million fine, though an escape clause allows them to quit in the seventh year for $28.4 million.

“From a policy perspective, the governor made it clear that the Bills are an important asset of the community,” said Irwin Raij, a partner with Foley & Lardner LLP in New York and the state’s representative on negotiations with the Bills. “He helped keep the team on a short-term lease and now he’s trying to help to work on the future.”

Raij is working with Aecom, the Los Angeles-based architectural firm the state hired last week to search for sites. Aecom is also considering the feasibility of the Bills’ staying in their current stadium, according to a copy of study’s description. The firm has until July 11 to produce its report, which will be handed out to potential ownership groups.

Donald Trump

Caputo, who is doing public relations for potential buyer Donald Trump, the real-estate mogul, said the team is likely to be sold before the November election.

In the Buffalo region in 2010, Cuomo received 164,405 votes, compared with Paladino’s 273,531. Statewide, Cuomo trounced Paladino by 63 percent to 33 percent.

Former Bills Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas, who recorded a television advertisement backing Paladino in 2010, joined a committee formed by Cuomo in January to advise the governor on tourism.

“I know how important it is to the governor that Buffalo and Western New York receive the proper representation and promotion,” Thomas said in a statement.

Unlike the 2010 contest, Cuomo won’t be facing a local resident in November. Rob Astorino, who is set to be nominated as the Republican candidate today, is county executive for Westchester, a New York City suburb about 300 miles (483 kilometers) away.

New Mate

Last week, Lieutenant Governor Robert Duffy, a former mayor of Rochester, said he won’t run again. That gives Cuomo the chance to pick a Buffalo-area politician, such as Mayor Byron Brown, to run on his ticket. Astorino picked Christopher Moss, the sheriff of Chemung County in south-central New York along the Pennsylvania border.

“The governor’s efforts these last three years have been noticed by the people of this community who know this governor cares about them, which has not always been said about governors among the people of Western New York,” said Mark Poloncarz, a Democrat and county executive for Erie, which includes Buffalo. “He’ll do much better, certainly better than four years ago, when he was running against a native son.”

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