The owner of the Buffalo Bills has hired a consultant to identify possible sites and designs for a new football stadium in western New York, including how to fund it and whether public money would be involved.
Pegula Sports & Entertainment announced Tuesday it has retained CAA ICON, a Denver-based firm, to study the next steps for the Bills, who currently play in New Era Field in Orchard Park, which opened in 1973.
The study will also recommend potential improvements for KeyBank Center in Buffalo, the home of the Buffalo Sabres, the NHL team also owned by Terry and Kim Pegula.
2 On Your Side spoke with some fans entering the arena for the Sabres game with the San Jose Sharks. Some cited the need for improving the seating arrangements to give a better view of the ice or provide more elbow room. And some brought up the need for a better heating system although it is a hockey arena. But other fans actually said they felt the arena was still a good place to watch the Sabres and attend concerts so they did not see the need for major upgrades.
Populous, a firm that has designed dozens of major sporting venues around the world, will handle the architectural and planning aspects of the study, according to the Pegulas' company.
“As both New Era Field and KeyBank Center have aged, they have fallen behind modern standards,” Bruce Popko, PSE’s chief operating officer, said in a statement, noting the Pegulas have "invested more than $2 billion of their own money in our market."
"With both leases nearing expiration, we look forward to developing a plan and working with our public sector partners to solidify the futures of the Bills and Sabres.”
According to PSE, the study will include "potential stadium sites, design, and financial planning for all options."
The Bills' lease with Erie County, which owns the current stadium in Orchard Park and arena in Buffalo, expires in 2023.
The Sabres' lease expires in 2025.
In a statement, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, a Democrat who has expressed concern about putting up county money for a new Bills stadium, said the Pegulas' announcement Tuesday was expected by the county.
"Nothing announced today should indicate any particular action, such as building a new stadium or hockey arena, will in fact occur," Poloncarz said.
"Any final decision will ultimately be made by the Pegulas through PSE, the county and New York State after future negotiations."
The Pegulas' press release Tuesday did not explicitly say whether the teams will seek public money for a new stadium or venue upgrades, though owners of professional sports teams often do.
In October, the Pegulas hired Christopher Schoepflin as vice president of external affairs and strategy. Prior to that, Schoepflin had been a top official at Empire State Development, the economic-development branch of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration.
Past lease negotiations for the Bills have resulted in the state and Erie County largely footing the bill for stadium improvements.
In 2013, the state, county and team struck a 10-year lease deal.
The state contributed $54 million up front for various upgrades at the stadium, while Erie County put up about $41 million. The state and county also made various annual payments for operating expenses, game-day operations and other costs.
The team, then owned by Ralph Wilson, contributed about $35 million up front and pay an annual rent fee, which started at $800,000 and was adjusted for inflation each year.
Cuomo himself has not publicly stated support for a new Bills stadium.
Asked during an October debate who should foot the bill for a new venue, Cuomo demurred.
"It's about 1,600 jobs to keep the Bills," Cuomo said. "There's a great psychic value. I love the Bills. But I'm not at a new stadium."
Kim Pegula noted CAA ICON has worked with the Pegulas before, having assisted with the Harborcenter facility in Buffalo and the Pegula Ice Arena at Penn State.
In a statement, she said the "fan experience" will be the study's top priority."
"We have the utmost confidence that CAA ICON’s unparalleled experience will help ensure that our venues achieve the highest standards," she said.
Jon Campbell is a correspondent for the USA TODAY Network's Albany Bureau.