Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Charities and nonprofits in Buffalo and Detroit are poised to get a big boost thanks to late Bills owner Ralph Wilson.
Depending on whom you've asked in recent years, Buffalo's biggest problem has either been its crippling poverty rate or the fate of its football team.
With the most expensive NFL franchise purchase ever unanimously approved by owners at the league's annual fall meetings Wednesday, the Bills' future is on solid ground for the first time in decades. And even more unexpectedly, the city's local charities and nonprofits will be better off as a result.
As the Buffalo News reported over the weekend, "most" of the $1.4 billion that Terry and Kim Pegula paid for the Buffalo Bills will go to the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation (started by the team's late founder). Before his death in March, Wilson directed the foundation to devote its resources to two cities: Buffalo and Detroit.
Raised in the Motor City, Wilson's first venture into the business of football was as a minority owner of the NFL's Lions. Before poor health hampered his mobility in later years, Wilson, who brought the Bills to Buffalo in 1959, was known to fly to Bills games from his home in Grosse Pointe.
Not coincidentally, both cities could really use the charitable windfall from this $1.4 billion transaction. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Detroit, Buffalo, and Cleveland are the only three major American cities with poverty rates over 30 percent. And local philanthropic communities are struggling along with them. The Chronicle for Philanthropy reported earlier this week that the charitable giving rate in the Buffalo-Niagara region dropped 10 percent between 2006 and 2012. The drop was nearly 5 percent in the Detroit metro area.
Detroit does have large charitable institutions like the Ford and Kresge foundations, with endowments in the billions. But in Buffalo, as the News reports, the Wilson Foundation's post-sale endowment "will dwarf that" of the city's biggest charitable group, the John R. Oishei Foundation, whose assets are estimated to be just over $300 million.
The Wilson Foundation won't discuss any specifics yet. After Wednesday's vote, the team's CFO Jeffrey Littmann issued a statement saying only that “we will be turning our attention—we’ve, of course, done some pre-planning work—to the future and the mission of the Ralph Wilson Foundation, and we won’t have anything further to say until we’ve done that and gotten on to that work.”
While the charitable surprise has led to praise from politicians and community leaders, it's worth remembering that Wilson benefited from favorable stadium leases that required millions in public dollars while doing little to assuage fears of relocation at any point in the team's existence—fears that had been planted within the team's first decade.
And the region may not be done giving money to the team. NFL owners have already made it clear that the Bills need to have a new place to play by the time the lease on the renovated Ralph Wilson Stadium ends. (The team signed a new 10-year lease in 2013.)
The Pegulas have been busy building up an entertainment empire in the city's inner harbor, including the NHL team they already own, the highly anticipated HarborCenter, and the headquarters of their sports and entertainment company. As a result, most speculation points to a new downtown facility. Unless its entirely funded with private money (that actually is possible), Erie County and New York State residents will once again be asked to subsidize a privately owned entertainment product.
Still, the gift is a desperately needed one for these two struggling cities. Fan loyalty and political assistance in the professional sports world rarely lead to a better quality of life for those most in need. In the case of the Bills, there's a chance it could do just that.