Today, the gas station is still standing at Abbott Road and Southwestern Boulevard. So are the convenience store, the tavern and the tiny office building. Indeed, the after picture looks exactly like the before, except that all the structures are 17 years older.
"Having the Bills and the stadium has had absolutely no impact in terms of economic development," said Dennis Mill, the town supervisor. "Nothing of any consequence has been built within a half-mile of the stadium. The lots that were vacant before are still vacant now."
Orchard Park's experience is typical of what has happened in recent years when professional sports teams move out of the core city and relocate elsewhere in the same metropolitan area - as would be the case were the Philadelphia Flyers and 76ers to move to the proposed new waterfront arena in Camden.
In general, experts say, acquiring the big city's sports teams provides the smaller community with some limited benefits from the jobs and tax revenues directly generated by the arena. But in terms of economic stimulation, the impact tends to be small.
What this suggests for Camden is that getting the Flyers and 76ers is likely to boost the local economy only in the most marginal way.
"There simply is no evidence to suggest that basketball and hockey bring industry," said Arthur T. Johnson, a political scientist at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County who had studied public policy questions related to professional sports. "Everybody talks about all these spinoffs, but they're really hard to pin down."
Whenever a community sets out to acquire a franchise, economic consultants invariably write glowing reports about how the city will benefit.
Such reports emphasize the "invaluable" publicity of having the community's name mentioned day after day in game stories. They calculate, with mesmerizing precision, how sports revenue will ripple through the local economy - a phenomenon dismissed by economist Dean Baim of Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., as "multiplier magic."
Only once, though, have economists taken a systematic look at what actually happened to two suburban communities after they got their teams.
That report, published in 1978, focused on the economic experiences of Irving, Texas, the home of the Dallas Cowboys football team, and Arlington, Texas, home of the Texas Rangers baseball squad. Both cities are relatively small suburban towns in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area.
In the study, economists Mark Rosentraub and Samuel Nunn used overall tax receipts as a measure of economic activity. They looked at the amounts of tax revenue collected by the cities of Irving and Arlington before and after the Cowboys and Rangers arrived. In addition, they compared those numbers with the performance of similar cities in the area over the same periods.
The finding: Irving and Arlington fared no better than their neighbors. It could be argued that they fared worse.
THE ECONOMIC BASE
"What we found," said Rosentraub, who is now a dean of business administration at Indiana-Purdue in Indianapolis, "is that the history of suburbs trying to benefit from professional sports is not very good. They don't have the economic base - they just aren't big enough - to capture the economic benefits for themselves."
Such a conclusion comes as no surprise to the folks in Foxboro, Mass., where the New England Patriots of the National Football League moved from Boston two decades ago.
"I don't think it's spurred any development at all," said Andrew Gala, the town administrator. "We're certainly not getting rich off this. We do have an 11-building industrial research park being developed, but that's way on the other end of town."
Richfield, Ohio, a small, exurban community located between Cleveland and Akron, has undergone a similar non-transformation since 1974, when the Cleveland Cavaliers of the National Basketball Association moved into the Richfield Coliseum.
"The coliseum by itself really has not served as a magnet for that area," said John Graham, an executive with the group that owns both the arena and the team. "There isn't much right around it, and there doesn't need to be. This is a mobile society. People don't walk anywhere, they drive."
EVIDENCE IS UNCLEAR
Even in cases where the importing of sports teams seems to have made economic sense, the hard evidence is difficult to sort out. Consider the case of the Meadowlands complex in East Rutherford, N.J., now home to the New York Giants, New York Jets, New Jersey Nets, the New Jersey Devils and a very successful race track.
Over the last 20 years, there has been $1.2 billion in private development - mostly in hotels, office building and warehouses - in the vast Meadowlands district, according to the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission. To what degree can this be attributed to the lure of professional sports?
"Sports may have speeded up the pace, in the sense of putting East Rutherford on the map," said Robert Grant, spokesman for the commission, ''but I think development would have come anyway, simply because of (the convenience) of our location. Development was beginning to take place even before Giants Stadium was built. In that sense, I'm not sure this situation is comparable to any other."
As for Camden, some economists note that having a new state-of-the-art arena, with two major-league teams, can't very well hurt the city, especially if the arena is built and operated with private funds. And, of course, it is possible that Camden would fare better than other communities have in converting a successful sports arena into broader economic development.
But the economist most often cited as an expert in sports economics, Robert Baade of Lake Forest College in Illinois, says there frequently is a conflict between what the teams (and the arena designers) want - to make life easier for the paying customers - and what economic planners want to maximize the economic stimulus.
"To make it easy for customers to get in and out, you surround arenas with asphalt oceans," Baade said. "And that, in turn, makes ancillary development, which depends on proximity, much more difficult. There are ways of using a stadium to induce development. But they get in the way of convenience."
Not surprisingly, the teams generally get the layout they want since, in most cases, including Camden, there can be no arena unless the teams are happy.
One suburban community that does seem pleased to be hosting sports is Auburn Hills, Mich., site of the Palace at Auburn Hills and home to the Detroit Pistons, champions of professional basketball. The growing township, 30 miles from downtown Detroit, is home to dozens of industrial parks filled with light industry and firms involved in research and development.
But location, not the Pistons, has been the key factor in Auburn Hills' economic growth. It is situated on what has long been the preferred route of flight for upper-income people and high-profile businesses leaving Detroit. But, said assistant city manager Glen Schoonfield, "the Palace (and the Pistons) coming here put Auburn Hills on the map."
There is one final irony. As the Flyers and Sixers ponder leaving the core city, the national trend appears to be in the opposite direction.
In Baltimore, the baseball Orioles will soon move from an old stadium in a residential neighborhood to a new one being built downtown.
In Cleveland, the Cavaliers are negotiating with city officials to move to a new arena that would be downtown.
And in Buffalo, the Bills' owner has announced the team will abandon Orchard Park when the lease expires, in 1998. His goal is to get a domed stadium built downtown.
"So then we may have to worry about what happens to a huge abandoned property," said Mill, the town official. "We can tell you from experience that having a stadium has been a burden on the town of Orchard Park."
PRO TEAMS THAT MOVED WITHIN METRO AREAS
TEAM NEW HOME
New England Patriots (Boston) Foxboro, Mass.
Buffalo Bills Orchard Park, N.Y.
Detroit Pistons Pontiac, Auburn Hills, Mich.
Cleveland Cavaliers Richfield, Ohio
N.Y. Giants, Jets E. Rutherford, N.J.
Dallas Cowboys Irving, Texas
Minnesota Vikings, North Stars
(Bloomington, Minn.) Minneapolis
Los Angeles Rams Anaheim, Calif.
Golden State Warriors Oakland, Calif.