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A magic trick was performed above the Niagara Thruway today when the words "Marine Midland Arena" disappeared from a sign that directs motorists to Louisiana Street and away from downtown.

And a more permanent solution -- directing motorists either to the Elm Street or the Louisiana Street exit for the arena -- appears to be only a few weeks away, authorities indicated Monday.

Thruway Authority officials used a few bolts and a small piece of sign to cover the Marine Midland Arena reference on the Louisiana Street exit sign. The work was done after rush hour this morning.

A group of about 30 parking-lot and restaurant owners downtown raised the issue last week, arguing that the Louisiana Street exit sign -- with its reference to Marine Midland Arena -- led unfamiliar arena patrons to bypass downtown in favor of the arena's parking lots and restaurants.

An apparent misunderstanding involving the city, the Thruway Authority and the Sabres led to the mounting of the sign on the southbound road about a month ago.

The business owners argued that the Elm Street exit is much closer to the arena and sends fans through downtown.

City and Sabres officials countered that taking some traffic onto Louisiana Street, away from Elm Street, eases pregame congestion and may be a quicker route during traffic-crunch time.

A long-term solution also emerged when city officials sent a written request to the Thruway Authority on Friday.

"We're asking that the sign be changed to say, 'Marine Midland Arena -- Next Two Exits,' " city Public Works Commissioner Joseph N. Giambra said. "They told us they would do it, but they didn't give us the timetable."

How soon the new signs will be erected depends on whether the support can hold the signs.

"If everything works out with the structural analysis of the existing (support), I would say two or three weeks is a pretty good estimate," said Ernest J. Scarozza, division highway engineer with the Thruway Authority.

James T. Sandoro, the downtown parking-lot owner who complained about the Louisiana Street sign, welcomed the news about the covered sign. But he also wants the city and the Thruway Authority to delay the more permanent sign until the affected parties can discuss it.

"There's no reason to compromise now," he said Monday, while circulating a petition in Main Place Mall. "Hold off for a while and let's study it."

Sandoro wants a meeting of the downtown business owners, the city, the Thruway Authority, the Sabres and other groups interested in the whole sign issue.

Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, also applauded today's coverup on the sign, but he's not sure about the permanent compromise.

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