Former State Senator and longtime City Councilman Al Coppola is on a mission to change the way that the city does business. The Council is sometimes too willing to use public resources to help private firms generate larger profit margins, he says. Rather than continuing to behave the same way, Coppola wants to empower the private sector and return our city-owned baseball stadium to the property tax rolls.
Coppola is a cornerstone figure in Buffalo’s body politic, still known for his legendary battles with Niagara Mohawk, a local energy monopoly that he had attempted — and nearly achieved — a city takeover, which energy industry experts say would have reduced local home energy costs by 65 to 75 percent.
In recent weeks, Coppola has been lobbying Buffalo’s Common Council — who he calls “fiscal trustees who are responsible for protecting local taxpayers.”
Rather than simply shell out $5 million or so for the stadium’s upgrades, Coppola is proposing that the city sells the property to an investment partnership owned jointly by the Rich family and the Jacobs family, the primary financial interests who profit from the ballpark’s operations. Delaware North operates concessions at the venue, and Bob Rich owns the Bisons team.
“Let’s sell the stadium for $1, and they can make all of the upgrades they want. If they take ownership of the property, they are going to be more willing to invest in it, and will be able to do so in ways that city ownership prevents,” Coppola says. “Political realities prevent the city from funding major upgrades.”
The Bisons and Delaware North should approach the State for upgrades rather than city taxpayers, Coppola argues, because “City taxpayers are already overburdened with more pressing needs, being one of the poorest cities in the nation.”
“Under private ownership, Delaware North and the Bisons will be able to go in a more mixed-used, 24-hour entertainment direction that is functional seven days a week,” Coppola figures. “The City can barely manage it’s housing complexes; clearly city ownership constrains what the ballpark can really become.”
An aging ballpark — on great real estate — is in need of evolution
Coca Cola Stadium originally opened in 1988. The ballpark is located a block from Buffalo’s light rail line, situated in the center of a downtown that has seen something of a reawakening in the last three years. The original design is to be lauded, as it hugs the urban fabric tightly, is located close to public transit, and stadium attendees often frequent downtown establishments because of the pedestrian orientation of the building with the surrounding neighborhood.
Though some urban design critics have said that the ballpark cuts off Seneca Street, degrading the urban fabric and making traffic patterns more roundabout. They also say that the large acreage and single-purpose use of the facility imposes an enormous opportunity cost on our downtown, preventing density from emerging in the heart of our central business district.
Coppola thinks that the ballpark is due for “an evolution into something more great, not just a sprucing up,” but thinks city ownership of the property has held it back for decades.
If in private hands, he can imagine a new hotel towering over the ballpark atop the public plaza now facing Swan Street, and entertainment oriented development emerging behind the ballpark, where surface parking lots are now located along Exchange Street. But because the city has been talking about this project in terms of lease upgrades, we are limited talking about inconsequential things, like new seats and more active restaurant and beverage spaces, Coppola says.
The Bisons are requesting $750,000 in seating upgrades to the facility. The 3,000 new seats will replace several thousand of the venue’s most desirable seating sections. Critics say that the new seats will only be three inches wider than the current ones, and therefore question the efficacy of the expense. Other upgrades include larger food and beverage spaces on the upper decks and retractable awnings.
“Lackluster,” Coppola says of the proposed upgrades. “But if they proposed anything bolder, taxpayers would be — rightfully — outraged. I can understand why the planned upgrades lack imagination.”
The Charlotte example
Coppola sites the example of The Charlotte Knights, where a multimillionaire who earned his fortune in building and managing nursing homes bought the team in 1997, mostly for real estate value tied up in the suburban ballpark. In June of 2012, the city and county agreed to put $8 million into the project and approved a 99 year lease at a rate of $1 per year (an in-kind value over $20 million). The remainder of the $54 million price tag was financed by private banks.
After a decade of talks with the city of Charlotte, he moved the team back to that city in 2014. The 10,000 seat ballpark boasts club seats, suites, and proximity to mass transit and 79,000 employees. The team is expecting 600,000 attendees per season, with revenues between $10 and $12 million.
In contrast, the Bisons’ ballpark was entirely funded by the city and state in the mid-1980’s, including the cost of acquiring densely built urban properties in the city’s core. It is the largest ballpark in the Triple A league, with 18,000 seats now and around 17,000 after the proposed seating upgrades.
After elected office, Coppola emerges as elder statesman of local politics
The former Senator is still very much admired by his North Buffalo constituency, which elected him eight consecutive times to represent Buffalo’s Delaware district — despite Niagara Mohawk’s well funded primary challenges that they waged against him every two years.
He is widely remembered as Buffalo’s “last honest politician,” at a time when the city’s political culture was even more outwardly crooked than it is today. His anti-establishment posture and populist attitude communicated to voters that Coppola was always looking out for the proverbial ‘little guy,’ and as a golden gloves champion in his younger days, was never afraid of taking on Buffalo’s most powerful special interests.
Coppola left the State Senate after serving one term. The Senate district had been considered an “Italian district” by local political operatives, drawn around that demographic population base in North Buffalo and the Tonawandas, and held by old political figures like former Attorney General Anthony Nanula and former Mayor Anthony Masiello.
But Coppola was elected at the turn of the decade. During his term, the district was redrawn by political operatives including G. Steven Pigeon, to make the district more African American. In a move that marked something of an ascendancy for Pigeon, his political protege, Byron Brown, challenged Coppola in that year’s Democratic primary with the financial backing of Niagara Mohawk.
The seat was held by Brown and then Antoine Thompson, until Mark Grisanti was elected in a shocking upset victory in 2010, after which it was redrawn to become demographically more Italian oriented.
Since leaving office, Coppola’s advocacy on behalf of some of the most pressing issues facing the city, has earned him the reputation of a hard charging problem solver who is always willing to stick up for people who haven’t been treated fairly by our governments.
For decades he has fought alongside Columbus Park and Prospect Hill residents who have been demanding environmental justice remedies for the public health crisis that has engulfed broad swaths of the West Side. At Public School 3 on Porter Avenue, 1 in 3 children has asthma so severe that they have to be administered inhalers daily. Beyond the childhood asthma epidemic, the West Side suffers from elevated rates of cancer, stroke, and neurological disorders.
Peer reviewed studies have been published definitively linking the West Side’s childhood asthma epidemic to the diesel carcinogens emanating from the Peace Bridge’s truck inspection plaza. Coppola has been advancing a solution to the crisis: moving the cargo inspection facilities to Lewiston-Queenston, where lake affect winds are less pronounced and adjacent land uses are less dense and non-residential.
In early 2012, when then freshman Senator Mark Grisanti voted for the Cuomo Administration’s $1 billion budget cut to Roswell Park Cancer Institute over ten years, Coppola was livid. His beloved wife Carol was being treated at Roswell when she died suddenly and unexpectedly — only a few months before Grisanti’s vote.
Coppola’s behind-the-scenes response was so aggressive and firm that Grisanti reversed his position within hours, and the Cuomo Administration followed very shortly thereafter. Coppola’s lobbying is credited with restoring the institution’s $100 million in annual state funding for the institute’s operations. Coppola has long opposed the privatization of the cancer institute, which is now a public benefit corporation and was once a state hospital.
“Given all of the environmental degradation of our industrial past, our region’s cancer rates are a vestige of that industrial history,” Coppola explains. “Of course we deserve an operating subsidy. Of course we deserve a comprehensive cancer center in the area of the state that is simultaneously the poorest and the most burdened with cancer.”
“Cuomo’s behavior is unconscionable, and he should be ashamed of himself for even demanding the cuts in the first place. It has already caused the institution enormous harm,” Coppola says, still unafraid of speaking truth to power and his own party’s political bosses. “We should be talking about more funding for Roswell — not less.”
The Coppola plan for the Bisons’ ballpark
Coppola is lobbying the Common Council to execute an immediate sale of the ballpark to Delaware North, the Bisons, or an investment partnership comprised of the two. In exchange for assuming ownership of the property, each of the firms’ should bring their own private capital to the table.
The ultimate objective, Coppola says, is to have a better utilized, more mixed use, more densely developed property in the heart of downtown — and that’s back on the property tax rolls.
If the Jacobs family and the Rich family can leverage their relationship with the state in securing Buffalo Billion funding for the project, “god bless them” Coppola says. “But they shouldn’t dare ask taxpayers in the second poorest city in the United States for new seats, when we have so many more pressing, more critical needs.”