Few NFL franchises have built around their stadiums better than the New England Patriots with Patriot Place and Green Bay Packers with Titletown.
Both have become year-round destinations that aren’t solely reliant on 10-plus home football games each year.
But can the Buffalo Bills and interested developers replicate those models to make the new stadium more than just a sports facility surrounded by parking lots?
Community advocates are demanding that elected leaders refuse to approve any new Buffalo Bills stadium deal unless it’s accompanied by a strong community benefits agreement to ensure that the Bills organization gives back to the people of Buffalo and Erie County.
The key, sports economists say, may be advance planning.
“In the end, what you would have is something that really improves the neighborhood and is a really attractive multipurpose development,” said Roger Noll, a sports economist and professor at Stanford University.
NFL owners have been putting a greater focus on incorporating development around stadiums and arenas to create year-round destinations that cater to more than just the fans attending a game.
The idea has become increasingly important in the Buffalo Niagara region, where the Bills plan to build a $1.4 billion stadium in Orchard Park – $850 million of which would be funded by state and county dollars.
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Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said there are entities interested in development rights and properties around the stadium, but that will not include the campus of financially troubled Erie Community College, which he said isn’t closing.
“We’ll just see where it all goes,” Poloncarz said.
Those seeking ideas about ways to develop around the Bills new 60,000 to 62,000 capacity open-air stadium across Abbott Road from their present facility, Highmark Stadium, might find ideas in the Patriots and Packers have accomplished.
Study: Southwestern Boulevard ‘could be enhanced and redefined’
After five decades in Orchard Park, there has been little spinoff development from the Buffalo Bills. The stadium, fieldhouse, practice fields and corporate offices are surrounded mostly by surface parking and residential neighborhoods.
An October 2019 study from CAA-ICON and Populous, commissioned by the Bills, notes that some businesses on Southwestern Boulevard in Orchard Park “negatively impact the principal image of the new stadium.”
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The study also noted that Southwestern Boulevard and Abbott Road, which run across the front of the current stadium and would do the same for the new site, “could be enhanced and redefined as new front-door identities with a new stadium complex.”
The Bills have hired Legends, a consulting and hospitality company founded in 2008 by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and George Steinbrenner, the late New York Yankees’ owner, to lead planning, project management, sales and partnerships for the team’s new stadium in Orchard Park, which is slated to open in 2026.
The company has worked on several new high-profile venues, including the Los Angeles Rams’ and Chargers’ SoFi Stadium and the Las Vegas Raiders’ Allegiant Stadium, both of which opened in 2020 and incorporate development in and around the stadiums.
How Foxborough and Green Bay have changed
Fourteen years ago, the Patriots started what’s become a trend of combining a retail, restaurant and entertainment district around a new stadium. Five years after the 2002 completion of Gillette Stadium, they broke ground on the 1.3 million square foot Patriot Place on land once used for stadium parking.
The Packers did not build a new stadium, but Lambeau Field, which opened in 1961, went through redevelopment in 2003. It helped draw in additional tourism and spawned the idea for Titletown.
The 45-acre development began to take shape 14 years ago with the purchase of vacant land once housing a Kmart adjacent to the stadium. It now features hotels, retail, restaurants and bars, apartments and townhomes and a technology startup incubator.
“We knew there was this growing interest in developing around stadiums across the country and really across the world,” said Aaron Popkey, director of public affairs for the Green Bay Packers. “Sports has a big draw and certainly the Packers and Lambeau Field are a huge draw for Green Bay and Wisconsin, so we wanted to build on that interest.”
A destination beyond football games
To create development that was sustainable, both franchises built a destination that appeals to a variety of customers.
The Patriots also put an emphasis on medical complexes, bringing in two of the area’s top hospitals, while the Packers focused on sports medicine and built a technology hub called Titletown Tech.
“It can stand on its own without football,” said Brian J. Earley, vice president and general manager for Patriot Place and NPP Development. “If you were just dependent on the events at the stadium, it could make it very difficult to have a development of scale.”
While the Patriots draw from Boston and Providence – each about 40 minutes away, making them one of the larger markets in the league, the Packers are the smallest market in the NFL, behind only the Bills.
The immediate area around the Packers stadium before Titletown was mostly a residential neighborhood with surrounding parking lots. In fact, the vacant parking lot at the former Kmart adjacent to the stadium was used for RV parking and camping prior to football games and events at Lambeau Field.
More than a stadium project
To create spinoff development, sports economists like Noll have said that a stadium should be just a piece of a larger project planned out in advance.
The architectural design of the stadium ideally would be integrated into a larger center in the area. That helps make for more of a seamless transition from the stadium to outside amenities like a shopping center and restaurants. It needs to be attractive enough so that people go there even when the Bills aren’t playing or the Rolling Stones aren’t in town for a concert.
“The reason stadiums are not the center of a robust economic development around them is because they’re used so infrequently,” Noll said. “In the best of circumstances, you’ll have 10 NFL games and 10 other events, like concerts.”
Packers bring big project to small market
Titletown has helped draw people to Green Bay from throughout Wisconsin and outside of the state, some of whom are making a weekend out of visiting the sites around Lambeau Field, according to Popkey.
“Game weekends are incredible,” he said. “They were beforehand with the energy around the stadium, but now this creates even more for people to do.”
After buying the Kmart site, they continued to acquire more property around the stadium, “creating a blank canvas,” as their vision came into clear focus, Popkey said. The Packers zeroed in on engaging the community with listening sessions, while working closely with the Village of Ashowobona, the locality across the street from the stadium. The organization also received some incentives to help fund development work.
One of the initial ideas was to work with the team’s health care partner, Bellin Health, in building a sports medicine and orthopedics clinic at Titletown. A four-diamond hotel was built by Lodge Kohler, and Hinterland, a brewery and restaurant that had grown out of their space in Green Bay, moved into the development.
The Packers added community recreational facilities, including a football field, skating rink, tubing hill and playground. A portion of Titletown also includes apartments, townhomes and office space.
Popkey said the most impactful initiative launched at Titletown has been creating Titletown Tech, a joint venture with Microsoft helping entrepreneurs launch businesses.
New England stadium has economic development zone
Patriot Place draws almost 10 million people a year who are not going to Gillette Stadium. That’s significantly more than the almost 4 million that come for stadium events.
When a new stadium for the Patriots was initially approved in the late-1990s, an economic development zone was provided around the stadium allowing owner Robert Kraft to take advantage of the 400 acres of land that he owned there.
The original stadium in the suburb of Foxborough was built in 1970, and like Buffalo, was in the middle of a neighborhood and surrounded by parking lots. For the most part, it was a destination only for football games and eventually Major League Soccer, as well the infrequent concerts and shows that come to stadiums.
Kraft started talking to interested developers and by 2007, a plan was completed for an outdoor lifestyle center for retail and entertainment that was different than anything else built in the New England area and around stadiums at the time.
“Even though it was in a small town, we had the confidence to build Patriot Place because we had great demographics around for household income and there’s good traffic on the interstate that runs adjacent to the stadium – all the things you build your business model on,” Earley said.
While there are two marketplaces there anchored by big-box retailers, it was a deal with Bass Pro that was the cornerstone of starting Patriot Place. Other anchors there are a movie theater, two hotels, medical offices and Mass General for Children Hospital and Brigham and Women’s/Mass General Health Care Center. Patriot Place also has 17 restaurants.
Foxborough doesn’t collect property taxes on the stadium, but it receives a portion of revenue based on ticket sales and taxes from hotel occupancy.
Orchard Park Council Member Conor Flynn is hoping Orchard Park can form a similar partnership with the Bills.
“It’s a huge investment, so you want to make sure that you’re joined at the hip with the organization so that you’re doing what’s best for the community,” Flynn said.