With so much talk surrounding the potential construction of a new Bills stadium, one option for the club that hasn’t been discussed as much is a renovation and retrofit of Ralph Wilson Stadium. While it’s hardly the most popular option due to the stadium’s age and location, pursuing a major renovation would likely provide a much cheaper alternative for the Bills to pursue in order to bring The Ralph up to par with the rest of the league’s stadiums.
To learn a little more about some of the other recently renovated stadiums, we reached out to blogs from around the league to discuss the process. Our first subject was Evan from Acme Packing Company to talk about the changes Lambeau Field underwent in recent years.
Chris: A lot of fans like to point to Green Bay as Buffalo’s small market cousin in the NFL when relocation and ownership questions arise. One category that the Bills seem to be lagging behind Green Bay in (aside from Super Bowls) is with their stadium. The Packers have gone through two large renovations since 2000 and they’re in the midst of a third. How has the reception for each of these projects been as they’ve been proposed and carried out?
Evan: The previous two renovations, in 2001-2003 and 2012-2013, did affect the Lambeau Field seating bowl, while the current project is primarily just work to improve some of the ancillary stadium facilities rather than major overhauls to the look and feel of the stadium. The first renovation was paid for by a combination of the team’s sale of stock shares, PSLs, and a small sales tax increase, while the second was paid for entirely by the team (helped out, again, in part by another sale of team stock). The current renovation project is also paid for using team money, so really the only process that had to go through much public scrutiny was the first renovation. That one went to a referendum and passed with a 53/47 split, so it was pretty tight.
CO: The 2003 renovation was motivated by the need to stay viable in the changing landscape of the NFL. How would you qualify the additions made in 03 and was there any apprehension to the inclusion of PSLs in order to help finance the work?
EW: The entire exterior of the stadium was given a thorough facelift in the first project. The Lambeau Field Atrium was added, and it has served as the home for the Packers Pro Shop, Packers Hall of Fame, and Curly’s Pub restaurant. The Atrium has also hosted fan events such as draft parties and really has become the exterior “face” of the stadium and a great gathering place for fans. As far as the seating bowl goes, adding more luxury boxes and premium seating was definitely identified as a necessity to keep the stadium up to the NFL’s standard, and so that was the biggest addition to the seating bowl. As I mentioned above, the work was funded through a few sources – some of the money came from the Packers’ stock sale in 1997, some of it came from PSLs, and some came from a sales tax increase in Brown County. As with any situation, PSLs are never a particularly appealing option for season-ticket holders, but the Packers have so much strength in their fan base (as evidenced by a season-ticket waiting list that numbers somewhere around 100,000) that there were always going to be enough people who were willing to pay.
CO: The history of Lambeau really speaks for itself and I feel as if the changes made in that first renovation really helped make it more of a destination for football junkies, particularly the work done to upgrade the exterior. Would you say that’s an accurate assesment?
EW: That’s definitely accurate – the brick facades and Atrium added at the time gave Lambeau a much more modern look (see here, circa 2004) as opposed to the rather stark, metal exterior that existed beforehand. The metal benches remained for much of the seating bowl though, giving it the old-school feel when sitting in the stands. Consolidating the “destination” facilities (the Pro Shop, Hall of Fame, and restaurant) into one area has also been great for fans traveling in from out of town.
CO: Can you give us an idea of how drastically the interior of the stadium was altered, if at all?
EW: As for the field itself, nothing has changed – it remains a natural grass surface, but improved heating systems were installed during the first remodel. That project also added a few extra rows of boxes on top of the stadium, but didn’t really do a whole lot to the primary seating bowl.
The 2011-2013 project actually had a much bigger impact to the look and feel of the stadium from the stands. The south end zone previously was pretty open (see first image) and just had a moderately-sized video board; however, that project added several rows of “upper deck style” seating and a massive new scoreboard on top, which encloses that end of the stadium much more. The players even mentioned after the first game last year that the south end of the field sounded much louder.
This timelapse video of the south end zone construction gives a great idea of the impact of those additions.
CO: On a tangent to that last question, the Bills aren’t in a situation where they can simply pile luxury boxes on top of luxury boxes. It’s a small market and the overall demand to fill suites is low. In fact, a number of endzone suites were removed in recent years. Was the choice to add suites based out of simple necessity or was there demand for them in Green Bay?
EW: I can’t speak to this personally, but I get the impression that there were plenty of takers for the added suites and that the team has had no trouble selling them out. I think it was a combination of both NFL requirements as well as demand for more premium seating, and I think that speaks to the impact that the Packers have in Wisconsin, both for the “regular Joe” fans and the major businesses in the state.
CO: The Packers are in the midst of another $140 million renovation project for Lambeau. How would you qualify these renovations and would you put them in the same category as the work done in 2003?
EW: The current renovation is primarily to revamp the Lambeau Field Atrium, which houses the Pro Shop, restaurant (Curly’s Pub), and the entrance to the Packers Hall of Fame. Much of this work is being done to improve fans’ accessibility to some of these facilities, so this project is definitely not on the scale of the previous two renovations. There is also some additional work going on to improve the player locker rooms and training facilities.
CO: The Bills are going through a similarly priced upgrade to portions of Ralph Wilson stadium but the general assumption is that a new stadium or a massive facelift will be required to keep the team in Buffalo. As a someone who follows so closely, how would you qualify the steps taken to ensure your team’s home stayed viable within the NFL? If you have enough familiarity with the Ralph could you add a thought or two on what should be done here in Buffalo?
EW: I think the kind of renovation that the Ralph would likely need to stay modern would be on par with the first Lambeau renovation. Appearance, luxury amenities, accessibility, and other key factors were all addressed in that project. I admittedly don’t know a ton about the Ralph’s history or layout, but it seems to me that the required work to get that stadium up to current NFL standards would require a very large investment on that order, and it might require some public funding to achieve that.