Chris Churchill in the Times Union asks the question–

The Bills get a Buffalo billion, while miSci in Schenectady faces an uncertain future

By Chris Churchill

A rendering of the new Buffalo Bills stadium under construction in Orchard Park.
A rendering of the new Buffalo Bills stadium under construction in Orchard Park.Courtesy Buffalo Bills

SCHENECTADY — Here’s an email I received after last week’s column about the dire situation faced by Schenectady’s miSci, which is the region’s only science museum:

“You might have pointed out that while we’re closing colleges, theaters, museums and libraries, taxpayers are spending hundreds of tax dollars building ‘bread and circus’ sports arenas. This has been the plan of conservatives for five decades. If the populace is ignorant and unschooled, they will be easily led!”

Thank you, kind reader, for your thoughts. But can we really blame conservatives alone for such spending?

It was Gov. Kathy Hochul, after all, who decided to hand the insanely rich owners of the Buffalo Bills piles of taxpayer money for a new stadium in suburban Orchard Park. According to Buffalo’s Investigative Post, the giveaway totals $1.13 billion in public money, including $600 million from the state for stadium construction, plus another $100 million for future repairs and $150 million for future capital improvements. Erie County is kicking in another $250 million.

That’s the largest public subsidy for an NFL stadium, pushed through a Democrat-controlled Legislature by a Democratic governor. So while Republicans are certainly responsible for stadium giveaways in other states, I’m not sure we can blame this particular folly of American life on conservatives alone. As is so often the case, the stupidity is bipartisan.

Of course, the broader point of the email is valid. If miSci closes as the Bills move into their new palace, the dichotomy would say nothing good about our priorities.

I love sports and watch them endlessly. I want the Bills to stay in western New York and recognize that the team’s departure would have been devastating. Monday’s playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, scheduled to begin a few hours after I typed this, will bring upstate New York together in ways both tangible and meaningful. [Editor’s note: The Bills defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in a 31-17 thumping.]

The Bills, however, are owned by billionaires, Kim and Terry Pegula, who could have and should have contributed more significantly to the construction of a stadium that will wildly increase the team’s profitability. Under the deal, the stadium will be publicly owned but all the revenue, including naming rights, will entirely go to the Bills.

That’s a pretty sweet deal. And for their largesse, New York taxpayers won’t even get a few cents off the cost of overpriced beers. In fact, season ticket holders wanting to enjoy the new stadium will be required to purchase personal seat licenses that are expected to generate hundreds of millions of dollars, thus paying for some construction costs not already covered by taxpayers.

The stadium plan is really just another example of how public money is so often used to make the rich even richer. And please don’t believe claims about a stadium paying for itself or providing broader economic benefits. Piles of studies show such claims are just untrue.

Imagine what miSci, which needs to move because of ongoing structural damage at its Nott Terrace building, could do with a smidgen of the money given to the Bills. Imagine if the Buffalo Bills-ion had been distributed to museums around the state, including to the New York State Museum, which has for years been planning (and repeatedly delaying) a $14 million renovation.

That’s a nice amount of money, to be sure, but it’s a pittance when compared to the estimated $1.7 billion cost of the stadium. Employees at the State Museum would tell you stories of budget cuts affecting the quality of a museum perpetually starved for funding.

Indeed, an oft-heard complaint tells us that state government moves at a glacial pace or can’t afford to do this or that. But the quickly approved funding — there was no public debate — and scale of the Bills project proves the claim untrue. It’s about the priorities of the people who are pulling the levels of power. When they really want something done, it gets done.

Time will tell us if miSci is a priority for Hochul or leaders in the Legislature. As last week’s column detailed, it is unlikely that the cash-strapped museum will be able to move without some level of public support. And without a move, the region’s only science museum will disappear.

That would be tragic. But look on the bright side: We’ll still have football!

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Churchill is one of the most well-known names, and faces, at the Times Union. His columns — published on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays — are shared heavily on social media and have won several awards. Churchill studied English and history at the University of Texas before beginning his journalism career at small weeklies in Maine, later working at the Biddeford Journal Tribune, Waterville Morning Sentinel and Kennebec Journal newspapers. He started at the Times Union as a business writer in 2007 and became a columnist in 2012. Reach him at [email protected] or 518-454-5442.