BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Don't rule out Niagara Falls as a potential future home of the Buffalo Bills.
Several officials told The Associated Press that a newly formed Bills stadium task force of public and private leaders seeking to bolster the team's long-term viability is considering sites that would put it closer to the team's burgeoning Ontario fan base.
"We're looking at Niagara County," Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy told the AP this week. "We're open to looking at a number of venues."
Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster confirmed Niagara County was discussed as an option during the inaugural meeting last week of the newly formed New Stadium Working Group committee.
Duffy made clear "that all options should be on the table," Dyster said, adding that includes Niagara County and even Batavia, about halfway between Buffalo and Rochester.
That goes beyond the group's initial directive, which was first limited to seeking potential stadium sites in Erie County, where Buffalo is located.
Another idea is having the Bills relocate their headquarters to the University at Buffalo campus in the Erie County town of Amherst, where a new practice facility would be built and shared with the school's football team. That proposal would satisfy a long-term need for a Mid-American Conference program seeking to broaden its profile.
Though not a member of the working group, New York state Sen. Tim Kennedy told the AP he is aware of the preliminary discussions tying the Bills and the school. A person familiar with the discussions confirmed the Bills/UB plan has been raised. That person wasn't authorized to publicly discuss the subjects raised in the private meeting and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.
Duffy and Dyster are among 20 members of the stadium group, which was established to make recommendations on whether the Bills require a new facility or should continue playing at Ralph Wilson Stadium, their 41-year-old home in Orchard Park. The group was formed as part of a 10-year, $271-million lease agreement the team reached with the state and Erie County in December 2012.
The group's role in helping determine the Bills' future took on more significance after Ralph Wilson, the team's owner and founder, died on March 25. Wilson's widow, Mary Wilson, is now overseeing the team until the franchise is sold, which raises the possibility of the Bills relocating under a new owner.
The Bills are essentially locked into playing at their current home through the 2019 season, because the lease features a $400 million penalty in the event the team broke it. In 2020, the Bills have a one-time opportunity to opt out of the lease for about $28 million.
Toronto and Los Angeles are regarded potential suitors.
The new owner will have final say on any stadium proposal.
It's incumbent upon the working group, which includes U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, to present a framework of viable options that provide the best chance of keeping the team in western New York.
"We have many very good tools to help that happen," Schumer told the AP. "I think there is a view that us showing early interest and the potential of a new home for the Bills is very helpful, because we want to show an owner that we want to do what it take to keep the Bills in Buffalo."
Ralph Wilson Stadium is currently undergoing $130 million in upgrades. The work includes structural upgrades and adding fan amenities to bring the facility up to modern-day NFL standards.
The Bills' presence has been regarded as key in helping an economically hard-hit region maintain a national identity. As the NFL's only New York-based franchise, the team generates about $20 million in direct annual tax revenue for the state.
Niagara Falls is 30 minutes closer by car than Orchard Park to a growing southern Ontario fan base. The Bills estimate Canadians make up about 18 percent of their season-ticket base.
Kennedy favors the proposal of linking the Bills and the university but is against a stadium site outside of Erie County.
"The Buffalo Bills were born in Buffalo and should stay in Buffalo," Kennedy said. "At least in Erie County. If we're talking about a new stadium I'd like to see it built in Buffalo proper."
Kennedy said a new stadium with a dome or a retractable roof could be part of a larger development, including a new convention center. The new facility would boost efforts to re-energize downtown Buffalo, he said, and could even make the city a contender for hosting the Super Bowl, he said.
Former Erie County Executive Joel Giambra said the southern Ontario market is critical to the Bills' future. Giambra said Wilson discussed with him the possibility of the team playing home games in St. Catharines, Ontario, while maintaining its headquarters in New York.
"They were aggressively trying to figure out how to tap that Canadian marketplace because of the economics," Giambra said.
Dyster is aware of discussions regarding the advantages of Niagara Falls' location, but said it's premature to suggest what recommendations might emerge.
"The critical thing here is that we all have to come together as a region to make certain that we keep the Bills here," Dyster said. "If we lose the Bills, we're all losers."
Associated Press writers David Klepper and Michael Virtanen, in Albany, N.Y., and Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo contributed to this report.
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