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Bills stadium lease talks stall with state, county

Lease negotiations between the Buffalo Bills and state and county officials have stalled, opening the possibility that a one-year interim deal will have to be reached for the team to keep playing at Ralph Wilson Stadium next season.

Bills CEO Russ Brandon said Wednesday that there's been no progress in talks for two months, forcing the team to readjust its plans on whether a long-term deal can be reached once the current lease expires July 31.

"They have stalled over the last few months, and hopefully, we'll restart the process and reset the calendar in the near future," Brandon told The Associated Press. "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."

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz acknowledged a lag in negotiations and that the three parties still have differences to settle before reaching a deal.

"It's a complicated three-part agreement, and you've got to have everybody on the same page," Poloncarz said. "And I'll say this, we're not on the same page with everything with the Buffalo Bills at this moment, just like the state's not on the same page with the Buffalo Bills or Erie County. We're getting there."

The Buffalo News first reported talks had stalled in its editions Wednesday.

The lack of progress in negotiations 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 its proposal for loan assistance at a committee meeting in order 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.

That could be too late for the Bills to receive loan assistance for next season, putting the team in a position to have to negotiate to extend its current lease by one year.

"It's certainly a possibility," Brandon said, referring to settling for a one-year deal. "We have a lot of work to get done in a short amount of time, and there are many levers to this process."

Poloncarz said the county and state are on board with a one-year extension, and he has no reason to believe NFL owners would object. Poloncarz added the framework of a one-year extension would be similar to the team's existing lease.

"Nobody wants to have a gun at their heads thinking if we don't get it done by the end of the season then what's going to happen," Poloncarz said. "By doing an extension, it guarantees the Bills are here for the full 2012 season, and it gives us ample time during the next 18 months or so to continue these negotiations."

Poloncarz and the state have a meeting set for Sept. 21, but noted the last time the three parties met 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, last month, hired attorney Irwin Raij 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 of dollar 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.

The parties have already missed one artificial deadline set by Poloncarz, who wanted a tentative deal done by the end of July.

Brandon sidestepped a question of how confident he was that a deal 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 Sept. 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.