Orchard Park, N.Y. (WBEN) - Another exciting football season in Western New York is underway, as the Buffalo Bills get ready to open their home portion of the 2023 schedule on Sunday afternoon against the Las Vegas Raiders at Highmark Stadium.
Another element of excitement in Orchard Park this time of year comes with the ongoing construction of a new state-of-the-art football stadium across the street from the current facility along Abbott Road. While work remains in the early stages with excavation of the site, there is a chance steel work could start on site by the end of the 2023 regular season.
While there's plenty of excitement to go around this season throughout the region, private lots around Highmark Stadium have been gearing up for a number of changes to game day weekends due to the ongoing construction. Heading into the home opener on Sunday, lot owners are ready to adjust to any changes that have already been made.
"There's only 30 cities that have an NFL team, and we're lucky as a community to have one of them," said Eric "Hammer" Matwijow, owner of Hammer's Lot adjacent to the construction site on Abbott Road. "We've got eight regular season games and a couple of playoff games, but you want to enjoy the whole time. This is what we've been waiting for, and now's the time of the season to really enjoy it."
Some lot owners around the stadium have already had plenty of people calling ahead of the season asking for some reserve parking, given the fact some of their previous lots are no longer available due to construction.
"What's changed here is the phone calls by the thousands to ask about parking. We're offering parking like we did last year. I'm just suggesting the people come early, take a little time. Don't try to come at the last minute, because I believe the Bills will run out of a lot of parking spots," said Mark Ebeling, owner of Danny's South at the corner of Abbott and Big Tree Roads. "There's a lot of parking out here, [but] you had a lot to go to like the 'Mud Lot,' it's not there no more. It's gone. Across the street from the Bills stadium is gone. So take some time and come out early. The parking is still here."
"A lot of people wanted to do reserved parking, which I'm limited to do that, because once you confirm their parking spot, you have to have it [cleared] out and ready for them," said Chuck Sonntag, owner of Chuckie's Lot along Abbott Road.
While many lot owners have been preparing for the differences expected for the upcoming season and beyond, there are still some uncertainties that lie ahead when it comes to parking on game days.
"We're a little worried, we usually have the regular people that come, and now we don't know what we're gonna get," said Joe DeMarco, founder of Wings Flight of Hope located a bit further from the stadium on California Road. "We don't like the crazy jumping off buses, jumping onto tables and things like that. I'm a little bit concerned about keeping the crowd under control, because we're obviously going to have some new people."
Ebeling admits he likely won't sleep comfortably until after the first game is over with, because he still doesn't know what to expect.
"We have plenty of parking here, but we do a lot of parties. We do a lot of parties in our lot, and we take care of a lot of people," Ebeling said. "I've had a steady flow of customers, just like all the area has had in the years. But like I said, there's a few lots that are gone now, so that's going to send people into a tizzy. And with me having my two big parties, I'm very limited on what I'm parking on the opening game."
For Matwijow, he says he changed up his parking pattern a little bit to try and accommodate a few more people at his lot. He adds the "Return of the Blue and Red" scrimmage and preseason game was a nice little test run that seemed to worked out well.
"Most of my customers are fantastic people, we don't have any problems like some of the lots have had in the past, everybody wants to get along. It's just a big family gathering like going to Chestnut Ridge, the amount of food and stuff," Matwijow said. "If you come from out-of-town and you don't know what to do, a couple of dollars and a smile, and I'm sure you can hook up with any tailgate and they'll welcome you with open arms. As long as you're not a Patriots fan!"
What did some of the other lot owners learn or take away from the scrimmage and preseason game that can be applied for the regular season? Ebeling felt the scrimmage was a great chance to get lot owners' feet wet, maybe even better than the preseason game did.
"We actually sold our lot out, and it was nice because the people that come to scrimmages are people that are given the tickets. They've never gone to a game before, so they generally try to head right to the stadium lot. And when they find out they're backed up down the road, they pull into offset lots all over the place," Ebeling said. "But a scrimmage game is good for the whole area, because it gets your feet wet on parking and stuff like that."
So how many people have called and reached out to other lot owners, especially those looking for new homes with RVs? While many of the lots closer to the stadium continue to get calls, they say they want to remain loyal to those that have backed them for years.
For DeMarco at Wings, he says the calls have been pretty steady for both cars and campers for the season.
"We have a lot of people, we gave them a season option to just leave the campers here, which is pretty nice," he said. "For an extra couple-hundred dollars, they don't have to take it in-and-out, they can just leave it here. We have a pretty secure lot, we have a lot of cameras, and I live right across the street so we keep an eye on things. Hopefully everything goes well. We're excited."
Perhaps the biggest focal point heading into the opening week of the season will be the cost of parking around Highmark Stadium for fans. How much will that change heading into the year?
According to Ebeling, parking costs have gone up just about everywhere.
"The closer you get to the stadium, it's a little more expensive. It depends on where you are, and what side of the streetlight you're on too. If you get on the wrong side of the light, you'll wait three hours at the stadium lot," Ebeling said. "If you notice on the lawns, lawns are varying from $50 to $40, down about a mile away is $30.
"You've got to expect it. Our gas prices went up, it's supply and demand. That's what gets you every time. You've gotta expect some kind of increase."
"The beginning of last season, I was still charging $30. Once they made the playoff games, I charged $40, and I kept it at $40. And most of the neighborhood beyond, closer to me, are charging $60, and some I heard $70 at the night games," added Sonntag, who's not far down the road from Danny's South.
As for DeMarco, he has heard a number of various prices for parking at different lots near the stadium in the range of $50-$100. He says the fact he has plenty of space to be able to accommodate more people is allowing him to keep prices at $30 to park further away.
"We're not going crazy with the pricing," DeMarco said. "I think what people like here is just to scoot out after the game, so we don't have to worry about running out of room. At least I don't anticipate running out of room. What people like is the 20 real bathrooms and the six porta potties. It's a lot better than some places, and it's easy to get out after here."
So what's the main piece of advise private lot owners are giving Bills fans ahead of Sunday's home opener? For just about everyone, it's all about pre-planning and making sure you have a course of action to arrive a bit earlier than usual.
"Just get down here as early as possible. I open up at 7:30, so I'll be lined up and hopefully be sold out by 10 a.m.," Sonntag said.
"We're going to be open at 7 [a.m.], so I'd probably encourage everybody to get out early. Who knows how the parking is gonna go, how the traffic's gonna be," DeMarco said. "We're here at 7, so come in early, get a spot. And we do have a lot next door we can always use if we need it."
Not only is it going to take a bit longer for Bills fans to find the parking they want ahead of Sunday's opener, Matwijow reminds everyone it will likely take a little bit longer to get into the game as well.
"As always, people are going to hang out in the lots that are closer to tailgate more, so the lines are gonna be longer and you're gonna miss the kickoff. So just plan ahead," Matwijow said.
"Even if you come out on a Saturday, if you don't know where you're gonna park, scope out some of the parking lots. Talk to the owners ahead of time, make sure you can get in, because a lot of the RVs ended up going into the private lots. You've just got to plan ahead and get here early."