ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Just like the Buffalo Bills themselves, who famously lost four straight Super Bowls, there is no question that the team’s new $1.4 billion stadium proposal has its doubters.
The stadium, to be built across the street from the Bills’ current home in this Buffalo suburb, is expected to receive the most generous outlay of public funds for a pro football facility ever, an extension of a decades-long trend in which local and state governments pay big money to keep or lure for-profit, and privately held, sports franchises.
Critics have already savaged the deal — which will cost the state $600 million and Erie County an additional $250 million — as an egregious example of corporate welfare. Others view it as a blatant example of election-year largess, orchestrated by a governor, Kathy Hochul, whose upstate bona fides do not necessarily translate to support downstate, where New York elections are won and lost.
But for die-hard fans at places like the Big Tree Inn, a bar and restaurant within a Hail Mary of the Bills’ current home, Highmark Stadium, there is little debate about whether the taxpayer money will be well-spent, particularly in an age when N.F.L. teams are billion-dollar enterprises and indisputable sources of civic pride.
“You never want to lose the team,” said Jeff Rapini, 47, a cook in the Big Tree’s wing-friendly kitchen. “And I’m one of those taxpayers who don’t mind.”
Local elected officials echo that, saying that the price tag for the new stadium is best viewed as the cost of keeping Buffalo a big-league town.
“The real benefit is we keep our team, and we avoid the psychological blow of losing the Buffalo Bills and the impact that has with regards to the image of Buffalo worldwide,” said Mark Poloncarz, the county executive for Erie County, which includes Buffalo. “If people know anything about Buffalo, N.Y., it’s Buffalo wings, it snows here in winter, and the Buffalo Bills.”
Buffalo’s insecurity about losing the Bills has only heightened as bigger cities have lost their franchises, often drawn by flashy new stadiums like SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif., which was built at a cost of more than $5 billion and now hosts a pair of teams that were drawn to the Los Angeles area from St. Louis and San Diego.
The state financing of the Bills deal was finalized in early April when lawmakers in Albany agreed to a record-setting $220 billion budget. The deal still needs approval by September from the Erie County Legislature and will assure that the Bills stay in Buffalo for the next three decades, according to Ms. Hochul, who hails from the area.
“My children’s children — my grandchildren — will be able to enjoy football,” Ms. Hochul said in announcing the agreement in late March.
The Hochul administration has also argued that the stadium will be a multipurpose facility and that the economic and tax benefits will eventually surpass the $850 million in public funds being spent on it, in addition to the more immediate creation of thousands of union jobs for its construction.
The agreement to pay from public coffers has nonetheless prompted sharp critiques from columnists and politicians, and seemingly left Ms. Hochul — a first-term Democrat who became governor in August after the unexpected resignation of former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo — open to charges of using budget money to burnish her chances of winning a full term in November.
The New York Public Interest Research Group, a good government group, also pointed out a potential conflict: Ms. Hochul’s husband, William, a former U.S. attorney in Buffalo, now works at a gambling and hospitality company, Delaware North, that has a concession deal with the Bills.
“Whatever one thinks of New Yorkers’ forking over hundreds of millions of dollars for a new sports stadium owned by billionaires, there is at least the appearance of a conflict,” said Blair Horner, the group’s executive director.
After the death of the team’s founder and original owner, Ralph Wilson, the Bills were bought in 2014 by Terry Pegula, a natural gas billionaire who also owns the Buffalo Sabres hockey team, and his wife, Kim, who serves as the Bills’ president.
For their part, the team said that Highmark Stadium — which is pushing 50 — was in need of costly repairs, particularly on its upper level, even as its lease neared its expiration date, set for next year.
“Extending the lease at the current stadium was simply not an option,” said Jim Wilkinson, a spokesman for Pegula Sports. “Spending upwards of $1 billion to renovate an obsolete stadium also wasn’t an option. But relocation could have been a very real option. ”
Shortly after announcing the agreement, Ms. Hochul was able to defray some of the state costs with a workaround: using more than $400 million from a recent payment by the Seneca Nation, a Western New York Native American tribe that had been engaged in a years-old dispute over casino revenue.
But even that maneuver was met with anger — from the Senecas, who blasted the deal as “the latest chapter in New York’s long history of mistreatment and taking advantage of Native people.”
“It is not surprising to the Seneca Nation that the governor thinks her actions should be applauded as progress,” the nation’s president, Matthew Pagels, said. “That’s the Albany way.”
Such invective, however, stands in sharp contrast to the general relief seemingly felt in Buffalo, which has recently experienced an uptick in economic investment and population after years of declining fortunes.
Similarly, the Bills have also been revived, coming within 13 seconds of a second straight trip to a conference championship game in January.
The team’s paraphernalia is impossible to miss, with Bills flags and red-white-and-blue jerseys seen across town. A downtown nightlife district known as Allentown has been informally renamed for the star quarterback: Josh Allentown.
The Bills have been in Buffalo since 1960, and the city is one of the smallest to have an N.F.L. franchise — though the team has proved to be the most successful one associated with New York in recent years, with the Giants and the Jets both underperforming (and playing, it should be noted, in New Jersey).
The new stadium will be owned by the state, which will also be responsible for providing more than $100 million for its upkeep. For Erie County, the $250 million to be spent on the stadium will be raised through one of the largest bond offerings in the county’s history, though the county comptroller, Kevin Hardwick, said that would most likely be offset by about $75 million in cash from a 2021 budget surplus.
Economists have long been skeptical of the effects of new stadiums on civic bottom lines, an opinion outlined in exhaustive detail in a lengthy analysis released this year that looked at decades of such agreements.
The paper’s three authors — all economists — concluded that “large subsidies commonly devoted to constructing professional sports venues are not justified as worthwhile public investments.”
Helen Drew, who teaches sports law at the University at Buffalo, said there was no way to put an exact dollar value on the project’s value, particularly regarding the positive attention that a good Bills team can bring. She also noted that cities like Buffalo had long invested in civic auditoriums and other municipal works to encourage development.
“You can rail against it,” she said, “but it’s a reality that cities like this have to pay to compete.”
April N.M. Baskin, the chairwoman of the County Legislature, holds out high hopes that an element of the agreement — calling on all parties to make sure that the deal would benefit “historically underserved communities” in Erie County — could be transformational for some areas of Buffalo.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to say, ‘Look at this huge public-dollar investment that we’re putting into the stadium — what are we going to do for the public?’” Ms. Baskin, a Democrat, said, adding that construction jobs were also an undeniable selling point.
Some of the sharpest criticism of the deal has come from downstate lawmakers, particularly younger progressives in the Democratic Party who look askance at using public money for private business ventures, especially for the benefit of wealthy owners like the Pegulas.
Shortly after the budget passed, Jumaane Williams, the New York City public advocate and a challenger for Ms. Hochul in the Democratic primary in June, called it “a massive giveaway.”
Still, Mr. Williams tried to walk the line between criticism of the deal and appreciation for the Bills.
“I know there are intangible benefits to a new Buffalo Bills stadium — just as there are intangible benefits to being a Bills fan,” he wrote in an op-ed for The Times Union of Albany. “I know keeping the Bills in Buffalo is critical, and that at least some of the stadium financing will be public funds. At the same time, I think we can spend a better billion on Buffalo.”
Patrick Bush, 55, a fan and an Orchard Park resident, said it was about time that residents of the New York City area — where several stadiums and arenas have been built with public funds — help out the state’s second-largest city.
“Our money travels downstate as well as theirs moves upstate,” he said, adding: “We send our money their way. They should send their money ours.”
Ken Belson contributed reporting.