'A long, tough winter'

Ralph Wilson Stadium

BUFFALO -- Mark Poloncarz walks to a bookshelf that lines the bottom half of one wall of his office in downtown Buffalo.

He grabs a two-inch thick tome bound in a blue cover, carries it to his desk and drops it with a thud. This is the Holy Grail for Buffalo Bills fans. It is the road map and instruction manual that they believe will keep NFL football in Western New York.

"We say this is ironclad," says Poloncarz, the executive of Erie County where the Bills' stadium is located. "We believe this is ironclad."

As Poloncarz talks, he keeps resting his left hand on the book as if it's 600 pages of comfort. It contains the 10-year lease between Erie County, New York state and the Bills, a team that has been in Western New York since it joined the AFL in 1959.

Buffalo is a city without a glittering downtown and with winds on the express train from Michigan. But it also has this blue book, which carries weight, literally and figuratively.

The lease is thicker than some NASA manuals, heavier than most bibles and, economically speaking, vitally important. Because Poloncarz and other local officials believe the lease binds the Bills to Buffalo at least through 2020, which they believe gives the community enough time to figure out the best and most secure plan to ensure the Bills never leave.

Los Angeles or London can call all they want. Erie County's lease won't let the Bills move.

"They're locked in," Poloncarz says.

Poloncarz is talking because on March 25, Ralph Wilson, the only owner the Bills ever had, died at the age of 95. That left uncertainty about future ownership, because the team will not go to Wilson's heirs. Though his wife Mary has controlling interest, the team will be sold.

Buffalo is a cold-weather city with an NFL team; cynics call it Green Bay near the Niagara. Buffalo's downtown would fit in one block of New York City, and its waterfront is a curious mixture of highways, overpasses, industry and public use. It has no Fortune 500 companies, and its unemployment rate hovers at or near 10 percent.

Los Angeles or New York or Boston or Chicago or San Francisco it's not.

The unknown leads to uncertainty.

Just down the street from the stadium named after the Bills founder and owner, 28-year-old Corey Huber tends bar at a small pub called Tailgaters.

"Everybody keeps thinking," Huber says, "we're going to lose the team."

The Anchor Bar, located a short distance from downtown, is the place where the signature sauce for Buffalo chicken wings was invented. Ivano Toscani has managed the bar for decades, and its walls are lined with photos of the well-known who have stopped to taste the original Buffalo chicken wing.

"People know that they're gonna move eventually ... " Toscani says in broken English of the Bills. "It would be a big loss."

"I think it's a matter of time before they actually move," says Kenny Boone, a counselor in the Buffalo school system, who started the conversation by talking optimistically about how long the Bills would stay in town.

Maybe it's small-town fatalism, an extension of the Cleveland syndrome. The Browns, after all, left Cleveland from 1996 to 1998. But former Browns owner Art Modell put himself in serious debt, something Wilson never did. That it happened at all, though, has drawn notice.

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