BOB CONFER: Let the Bills pay their own bills

Bob Confer

Sunday’s edition of the Buffalo NewS dropped a bombshell: The Buffalo Bills are in talks with New York and Erie County officials about a proposed new stadium and the Pegula family wants taxpayers to foot the entire bill to the tune of $1.1 billion.

While that initial ask is a reach — stadium projects across the country have been publicly funded at 40% to 70% of their price tags — the Pegulas know what they are doing.

By following negotiation tactics utilized by countless businessfolk through the ages, they are asking high, understanding that the back-and-forth will whittle the end result down to what they were secretly expecting all along.

They also know that given what has happened elsewhere in the country with other pro sport franchises, they can get funding and lots of it or else they are leaving money on the table and, potentially, leaving the region.

It’s unlikely that they really think the state will throw $1.1 billion their way. But, it’s not out of the question that they’d shoot for $750 million, especially since the state showed that they didn’t mind giving that to Elon Musk and his questionable Buffalo factory.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Somewhere, sometime, a stand has to be made against the fleecing of taxpayers to benefit billionaires.

Buffalo needs to be that place, now.

Oh, I know Western New Yorkers love their Bills and would hate to see them leave, but it’s cultish to cater to deep-pocketed ownership that can certainly afford to make long-term investments, just so you can hold on to the belief that a professional sports team somehow defines you and your region.

Just consider these numbers: Terry Pegula’s net worth, $5.4 billion; the Bills valuation, $2.15 billion; the team’s revenue in 2019, $413 million (and, of that, $115.2 million was local revenue).

Those numbers are massive. Regardless of their holdings and revenue streams, the Pegula’s, like all NFL owners, want to do a reverse Robin Hood, taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich.

It’s Terry and Kim Pegula’s business; let them grow it, let them assume the risk. Why should you? Why should I? Isn’t it better spent elsewhere (some would argue better not spent at all)?

Let’s suppose the negotiations work out to be $750 million. Think of how that could be spent correcting major issues across the state. The lack of first responders in small towns and rural areas is a public health and safety crisis worse than Covid. Major roads are in significant disrepair and the temporary fixes continually done by highway departments can no longer hold. New York has 1,800 structurally-deficient bridges that need repair or replacement. Thousands of New Yorkers, rural and urban alike, still lack access to reliable high speed internet in their homes, schools and businesses. Food deserts persist in inner cities, depriving people in need of their best health. One hundred miles of lead pipes supply water to homes in Buffalo, poisoning families. Brownfields persist throughout the state as tainted legacies of a bygone era. I could go on and on.

I hate to virtue signal but it needs to be known that if my team and I can do it, their team can, too.

Back in 2016, Confer Plastics invested in one of the biggest blow molding machines in the world. We declined $750,000 in grants to cover some of the cost of that machine, choosing instead to take out a larger loan from the bank. Our view was that as entrepreneurs it’s our obligation to take our own risks, not yours. If the investment is a good one, it will gradually pay for itself.

Then, at the peak of the springtime Covid shutdown in 2020, we applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan from the federal government. Once we learned that 1.) we would be OK on the other side of the crisis and 2.) the loan would instead become free money, we returned the $1.47 million. It wouldn’t have been right to take taxpayer money, especially when it is better spent by even smaller businesses for which their future remained unknown.

Such dollar amounts are chump change to billionaires, but they are huge to a small business. To put it into perspective, in a normal year our revenues could cover two seasons of the Bills’ contract for wide receiver Stefon Diggs.

Yet, despite the struggles of running a manufacturer — in New York of all places! — we’re against taking public money and we’ve made it work. If our established business can survive financially and, just as importantly, ethically and morally, without robbing from hardworking taxpayers, the Buffalo Bills can too. It’s called the “free market” for a reason.

Doing what’s right and just isn’t easy — and some corporatists might say it’s illogical. But, in a state that wasn’t socioeconomically healthy to begin with, there’s so much need, especially after families, small businesses and local governments were gutted in so many ways by Covid and responses to it. There are far more who deserve that money than billionaires who want to provide the newest and prettiest playgrounds to millionaires.

We, as a people, need to identify our priorities and stand up for them.

Football isn’t one of them.

Bob Confer of Gasport is the vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. Email him at bobconfer@juno.com.

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