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First official step taken in exploring new Bills stadium

Ralph Wilson Stadium (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images) Ralph Wilson Stadium (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has people talking about a new NFL stadium for the Buffalo Bills, even as Ralph Wilson Stadium takes on $130 million worth of renovations in time for next season.

As part of the Bills’ new 10-year lease signed in December 2012 to remain at the league’s fifth-oldest venue (not counting the completely renovated Soldier Field), the team agreed to a $400 million relocation penalty and the state not only signed on to share the costs on renovations for the Orchard Park facility, but also offered to consider the idea of a new stadium.

Now we have a New Stadium Working Group doing just that.

With Cuomo appointing five members to the group on Monday, according to The Buffalo News, expect Erie County and the Bills to offer up additional members as the new committee starts the task of figuring out just how a new stadium could spur on economic growth for the greater Buffalo region. And all without being a major drain to Bills’ owners and taxpayers.

With new NFL stadiums hovering close to—and some plenty over—the $1 billion mark, Buffalo isn’t exactly a prime candidate for the investment. The Bills already struggle to sell-out the 73,000-seat stadium that opened in 1973. And they only play seven home games there.

Ever since 2008, Buffalo has traveled to Canada to play a “home game” in Toronto’s Rogers Centre, signing a new five-year deal last year on that relationship. What started as a way to boost interest from the metro area that surrounds Canada’s most populated city has started to fade. Filling the 46,000-seat Toronto venue hasn’t proven easy, with less than 40,000 showing up for the Bills’ December 2013 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, the smallest Toronto crowd for a Bills game yet.

With no concrete agenda for the new stadium group other than keeping the Bills in place long-term, the group will explore all options in Western New York, whether that includes downtown Buffalo, the outer harbor (which already has a private plan for a stadium and entertainment district that has failed to gain any sort of political traction) and even elsewhere in Erie or Niagara counties.

Courtesy Populous Courtesy Populous

While some fans will say the Populous-designed upgrades to Ralph Wilson Stadium should be enough to keep the Bills around—the state ($54 million), Erie County ($41 million) and the team ($35 million) will give fans a new video display board, fresh west-end plaza, improved concessions and gate entrances and a new team store—by the time the lease runs out in 2023, Ralph Wilson Stadium will be 50 years old. Don’t think a new stadium won’t be all the talk by then.

But we can’t talk about the economic pros and woes of a potential new stadium in the Buffalo region, with its shrinking population, without discussing relocation, especially with Los Angeles boasting three potential NFL-ready sites. But the Bills’ gargantuan relocation fee takes that out of the equation. For now.

Even if L.A. isn’t a viable option, Buffalo has grown accustomed to talk of shifting the Bills right out of the country, 109 miles to Toronto. But Rogers Centre isn’t exactly an example of up-to-date stadium design, as the then-named SkyDome opened in 1989.

Unless the state-sponsored stadium group comes up with some grand plan—and a way to fund it—expect the new-look Ralph Wilson Stadium to serve as the Bills’ solution of the future. Well, the future as we see it now.

Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and technology for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb

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