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Bills, county open to 1-year lease extension

Stalled lease negotiations have led to the Buffalo Bills and Erie County favoring a one-year lease extension that would allow the team to keep playing at Ralph Wilson Stadium next season while talks continue on a long-term deal.

County executive Mark Poloncarz announced Wednesday that he and the Bills have agreed in principle to extend the lease if necessary if a new deal is not in place once the current one expires July 31. Poloncarz's announcement came after Bills CEO Russ Brandon raised concerns about the lack of progress in negotiations to reach a long-term deal.

"By doing an extension, it guarantees the Bills are here for the full 2013 season, and it gives us ample time during the next 18 months or so to continue these negotiations," said Poloncarz.

Poloncarz said the state is also on board with a one-year extension, and expects a formal agreement to be signed "fairly quick."

Brandon went public with his concerns by informing The Buffalo News that negotiations had stalled in a story published Wednesday morning. Brandon then repeated his concerns in an interview with The Associated Press.

"They have stalled over the last few months, and hopefully, we'll restart the process and reset the calendar in the near future," he said. "We've been ready to go and have been in discussions with the appropriate parties for many months now. Over the last few months, we've hit somewhat of a cone of silence in the discussions."

Brandon described a one-year extension as "certainly being a possibility."

The lack of progress has already led to one setback.

Brandon said the team will miss a deadline this month to apply for an NFL loan assistance program to help offset the $200-$220 million in costs the Bills and taxpayers would share for proposed renovations and upgrades to the 39-year-old stadium.

Brandon said the Bills needed to present their proposal for loan assistance at a committee meeting to have it placed on the agenda for a league meeting next month. The next chance the Bills will have to do that won't be until March.

However, a one-year extension fails to address a key concern in securing the franchise's long-term future in Buffalo. The team's founder and Hall of Fame owner Ralph Wilson is 93, and he spent a week in the hospital this month.

Wilson has said he has no intention to leave the team to his family, and instead plans to have his heirs sell the franchise. That opens the possibility of a new owner relocating the franchise, and makes a move less expensive if the team is not tied to a long-term lease.

"I'm not going to sit here and say that Mr. Wilson's age or health is not a factor because it is," Poloncarz said. "I'm not going to ignore it. ... No. We're going to continue to move forward. And I'm hopeful that we're going to get a lease done as soon as possible. I'm just disappointed it's not going to get done by the end of this year."

Poloncarz expects the new one-year deal would be similar to the team's existing lease.

Poloncarz and the state have a meeting set for Sept. 21, but noted the last time the three parties all met together was June 29.

Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy disputed claims that negotiations have stalled, saying state representatives have been in constant negotiations with the team and local government for the last several months.

"Let's set the record straight: the governor and this administration are actively negotiating in good faith with the Bills," Duffy said in a released statement.

"Keeping the Bills in Buffalo is critically important to the state and the region. And this administration is committed to doing everything we can to ensure that the Bills remain in western New York," Duffy said. "If taxpayers are going to be asked for substantial financial support for stadium improvements, they must be assured of a long term commitment by the Bills to stay in Buffalo regardless of future ownership."

Josh Vlasto, spokesman for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, noted that the state hired attorney Irwin Raij last month to assist in negotiations. Raij specializes in stadium development projects and lease agreements. He was most recently represented Guggenheim Baseball Management in buying the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Vlasto also noted that Cuomo included spending millions to retain the Bills among his list of "critical economic development projects."

The state has a large stake in keeping the Bills, because the team is estimated to generate between $15 million and $20 million in state taxes. Erie County also has a stake, because it controls the stadium lease.

Brandon sidestepped a question of how confident he was that a deal with all the parties would be completed.

"I'm very confident that we have our ducks in the proverbial row to sit down and have meaningful and thoughtful conversations with our stakeholders," he said. "It's our No. 1 initiative. So we're always ready and willing to talk at the drop of a hat. We're ready to go at any point, and have been over a year."

The Bills are also negotiating with Rogers Communications to renew a five-year series of home games Buffalo plays in Toronto. The current deal runs out this year after the Bills "host" the Seattle Seahawks in Canada's largest city and financial capital on Dec. 16.

Brandon said he expects to resume discussions with Rogers officials within the next three weeks. He said talks were delayed because the team was focused on training camp, the start of the season and lease negotiations.

Brandon said lease talks will have no effect on renewing the deal to play in Toronto.

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Associated Press writers Michael Virtanen, in Albany, N.Y., and Carolyn Thompson, in Buffalo, contributed to this report.