by Nanette D. Massey
Public convictions ran high during a community meeting Monday evening, June 4th, against the business entity applying for a license with the state liquor authority to open a liquor store at the former Gigi’s Restaurant location at Jefferson and E. Ferry Streets. Buffalo’s Masten District Councilman Ulysees O. Wingo organized the meeting.
Over a hundred people attended, and everyone with an opportunity at the microphone spoke vehemently against the opening of the proposed store. Residents voiced concerns regarding potential panhandling and drug activity, parking, increased auto traffic at an already perilous intersection, an ill disposed influence on walking school children, and a general belief that a liquor store looks bad and would bring down the property value of the neighborhood. Wingo attempted to re-set the tone by letting the assemblage know this was not intended to be a town hall style meeting where opinions were being solicited, but mainly an opportunity to get a first hand tutelage on the process of granting liquor licenses, and exactly where community input could appropriately have a place in that process.
“I don’t want the meeting to get hijacked,” he said, clarifying that it would not be proper or legal to disclose specifics about the 257 E. Ferry site’s application, and that today’s speaker was not the authority to whom appeals for opposition to the store were to be addressed. With that, he introduced David Edmunds, Deputy Commissioner of the N.Y. State Liquor Authority. “Normally I don’t get involved at this level,” Edmunds pointed out. However given the extent of public agitation, he felt it appropriate to hear the community’s concerns and to give effective direction to them.
He said he would also be preparing a summary memo of Monday’s meeting to present to the state board as part of their decision making material. Edmunds took residents through the nuts and bolts of the retail liquor license granting process, explaining 3that an application is reviewed step by step against the Alcohol Beverage Control Law, and then approved or disapproved by the three member state board who meet every other Wednesday.
“We must follow the law to the ‘T’ or we can count on a lawsuit,” he said. Currently one member of the board is from Utica, another is an African American from Albany with ties that keep him regularly in Buffalo, and the third position is vacant. In making their decision, the board looks at five years of sales from four nearby liquor stores and weighs those numbers against area population trends.
Opposition to the store needs to directed, he said, toward the question of “is the community being adequately served by the current stores already licensed and operating?” Wingo hosts what he calls a Masten District Stakeholders Meeting, complete with a hot breakfast, at 8:30 a.m. on the second Saturday of every month at this same community center. It was at one of these meetings he was first alerted of the proposed store.
His office began receiving complaint calls from residents and he, along with NYS Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, retired Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant and Senator Tim Kennedy, sent formal statements of opposition to the liquor board. Our May 16th issue reported that Ahmed Saleh, owner of Mandella Mart located across the street on this same Jefferson and E. Ferry corner, and other area business and clergy leaders are heading up an aggressive effort against the store’s opening. -New Owner of 257 E. Ferry:
“This business is all I know.”- Tsegai Mesfin, 257 East Ferry’s new owner, works at a liquor store in the University District. He said he used to work for Ahmed Saleh at Mandella Mart and, until this current friction, understood the two of them to be close friends. He is from the same East African country, Eritrea, as Saleh. “Me and him are the same people. He has come at me hard, but I do not wish to spread hate to my brother. It is a bad example for our children.” He said he is disheartened by the protest efforts and the public’s characterization of him as a careless community outsider, when he has called Buffalo home since 2010 and only lives blocks away himself. “I’m not there to destroy the neighborhood, then I’ll destroy it for my own kids too.” Masfin notes that Gates Circle Wine and Liquor on Delaware is in a neighborhood of high end homes whose values have not suffered by its presence, and the Jefferson area is hurt more by the unkempt building that has currently stood for over two years.
He’s bought two lots across Jefferson Street to facilitate parking, and suggests that healthy competition between nearby stores will only benefit the consumer in pricing and selection. There is another long established liquor store only about two blocks away. At the suggestion he might consider opening a different type of business, Masfin asserts “this business is what I know.” Plans for the store include having the front brightly lit for safety, and camera recordings of any suspicious activity will be turned over to law enforcement for their review.
He says he will not allow for excessive loitering but, as a Christian, will still balance that with compassion for those seriously in need. “I would at least buy them lunch and not be stupid and rude. If not, why do we go to church anyway? If they’re going to take my license away for that, let them take it.”
The license application is in the very beginning stages, according to Wingo and Edmunds, and can typically take 45 to 60 days.