ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — In preparing to break ground on the Buffalo Bills new stadium, owner Terry Pegula looked to the sky to deliver a message to his late predecessor and franchise founder, Ralph Wilson.
“Ralph, we’re moving across the street,” Pegula said to an eruption of laughter from a large gathering that included Wilson’s wife, Mary.
“And what would he say to that, Mary?” Pegula said. “And don’t start crying because you’ll get me crying.”
Using the Bills current home as a backdrop, Pegula, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul on Monday dug into a small plot of dirt across the street in breaking ground on new stadium scheduled to open by the 2026 season, and projected to cost $1.54 billion, with taxpayers picking up $850 million of the tab.
The hour-long ceremony was a celebration of the team’s future, which is essentially secured with a new stadium that comes with a 30-year lease, and also the past. It was held amid construction equipment in what served as a former stadium parking lot already being prepped as the site of the Bills’ 60,000-plus seat new home.
“I love what Terry said,” Mary Wilson told The Associated Press afterward. “Their entire leadership to make this happen, I think Buffalo, they’ve got no idea how great it’s going to be.”
Wilson first encountered Terry and his wife, Kim Pegula, when she had input in selling the Bills to them in 2014 for a then-NFL record $1.4 billion following her husband’s death.
“It’s incredible. They’re going to make a big splash,” she said.
The ground-breaking comes a little more than a month since an agreement between the Bills and state and county governments was approved, and some 14 months after the framework of a deal was agreed to, with taxpayer money set aside in the state budget.
The new facility will replace the Bills current home, Highmark Stadium, which opened in 1973, and was deemed by a state study as being too expensive to renovate. The new stadium will carry over the naming rights after the Bills announced a long-term deal with Highmark, a health insurance provider, and become the franchise’s third home.
Established by Wilson in 1960 as an American Football League franchise, the Bills spent their first 13 seasons playing at War Memorial Stadium in midtown Buffalo.
Hochul, who grew up a Bills fan in nearby Hamburg, New York, emphasized the benefits — both financial and psychological to one of the NFL’s smallest markets — that come with keeping the franchise in Buffalo. She said the team’s annual economic impact to the community is $385 million, while saying the construction of the facility will result in 10,000 union jobs.
“This is one of the highlights of my time as your governor to make sure we’d deliver what I said we would do for keeping the Buffalo Bills in Buffalo for at least another generation,” said Hochul, who was dressed in Bills blue and red colors, and even wore sneakers with the team’s logo on them.
The deal has been questioned, with critics referring to it as corporate welfare in using taxpayer funds to support Pegula, who has a projected net worth of $6.7 billion, and also owns the NHL's Sabres.
Questions were also raised as to whether it would have been better to bring the Bills back to playing in Buffalo to help revitalize the city’s core rather than remain in suburban Orchard Park.
The most poignant moment of the ceremony came when Pegula grew emotional and paused for 25 seconds before catching his breath.
Wiping away tears, Pegula listed the names of 10 Black victims who were killed in a racially motivated shooting at a Buffalo supermarket in May 2022.
Pegula then noted to his wife, who was not present and dealing with significant language and memory issues after going into cardiac arrest a year ago.
Saying he cheers for her every day, Pegula cited the Bellamy Brothers’ song “You’re My Favorite Star,” by saying, “And Kim, you are my favorite star.”
A few moments later, Pegula pointed to the team’s existing stadium and then to the stage on where he stood.
“We’re going to build a stadium here, right? And we’re going to tear down a stadium over there that’s full of memories,” Pegula said. “So we need to fill this stadium with more memories and continue our legacy. We should remember the past, but embrace the building of our future.”
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