ALBANY Real-estate brokers, developers and a labor-union official were among 54 people who took in a Buffalo Bills game last year in a state-leased suite, but the luxury box sat empty for the team's final two home contests.
In all, 48 percent of the 112 tickets given to the state as part of the football team's lease for Ralph Wilson Stadium were distributed during the 2013 season, according to a year-end report obtained through the state Freedom of Information Law.
"I think we were very satisfied, actually," said Thomas Kucharski, president and CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Enterprise, a regional business group that was delegated control of the box by Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration. "This was the first time that we've tried to do something like this."
The 16-person "I Love NY Hospitality Center" was licensed to the state last year as part of a 10-year, $130 million lease agreement between the state, the Bills and Erie County, which owns the 73,967-seat stadium in Orchard Park. The state is paying $54 million for stadium upgrades as part of the deal.
The endzone suite is meant to encourage "economic development, tourism and public awareness for the state and western New York," according to guidelines laid out by Empire State Development, the state's economic-development arm.
But the agreement was criticized by some lawmakers, who questioned whether it was appropriate for the state to dole out free tickets to a professional sporting event.
Under the lease agreement, up to 16 tickets and four parking passes are given to the state at no charge for each of the Bills' seven annual home games. While the tickets were provided, Kucharski said the cost of food and drink in the suites were paid for by whichever group was playing host for a particular game.
Interest in the suite appeared to be strong in the season's early goings, according to the report prepared by the Buffalo Niagara Enterprise. At least 15 tickets were given out to each of the first three games -- Sept. 8 against the New England Patriots, Sept. 15 against the Carolina Panthers and a Sept. 29 tilt with the Baltimore Ravens.
On Sept. 29, business leaders and developers -- including Howard Zemsky, a Buffalo developer and Cuomo ally -- mingled with representatives of the University at Buffalo Center of Excellence and the SUNY Research Fund. They were in town for Bright Buffalo Niagara, a conference for investors and entrepreneurs that was the official host for the game.
The UB and SUNY employees paid for their tickets, according to the report.
For the first two games, the Buffalo Niagara Enterprise focused on bringing Canadian real-estate brokers to the region, including nine commercial brokers from the Canadian branch of Colliers International, a major real-estate firm. The business group has been focusing on making connections in southern Ontario, according to Kucharski.
Jeremiah Shamess, a Colliers sales representative, said the outing was meant to focus on fostering business relationships between the Ontario brokers and connections in western New York.
Shamess had been scheduled to attend, but lost his passport shortly before the game, he said. He currently has a former brownfield property in Niagara Falls and is trying to attract a company to locate a data center there.
Attendance waned as the season went on, according to the report. Six people were in the suite for the Oct. 13 game with the Cincinnati Bengals, including Mary Bergquist, director of meetings and travel for United University Professions, and her son.
Visit Buffalo Niagara, which had use of the suite that game, has been bidding on bringing UUP's annual conference to the region, according to the Buffalo Niagara Enterprise report. The union represents SUNY faculty and employees; Bergquist could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Only two people took in the Nov. 3 game against the Kansas City Chiefs from the suite, including Norm Page, who represents USA Hockey's sled hockey program. For the Nov. 17 game with the New York Jets and Dec. 22 game against the Miami Dolphins, the luxury box was empty, according to the report.
Kucharski said the group had lined up attendees to two of the final three games, but they backed out at the last minute. Paul Pfeiffer, the Buffalo Niagara Enterprise's director of investor and public relations, said it was also difficult to attract guests in the games close to the holidays.
"We tried to use each game and plan some things around it," Kucharski said. "For the people who were visiting, we tried to maximize their time so they not only saw the Bills, but had a good experience here and maybe learned something about the region."
Dave Hamling, president and CEO of the New York Construction Materials Association, said he and his wife were invited to the Oct. 13 game by the Buffalo/Niagara visitor's bureau.
Visit Buffalo Niagara is looking to host one of the association's annual conferences, which are held over 2 1/2 days and bring in about 150 delegates.
"It was a social time," Hamling said. "People had their spouses, and it was more like friends being together than a business trip, so to speak."