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Interest in closing bars earlier dwindles ; Lawmakers have yet to discuss issue

Days after the 2:30 a.m. massacre outside the City Grill in August, the Erie County Legislature chairwoman promised that lawmakers would consider rolling back the 4 a.m. closing time for bars, the latest last call in Western New York.

But the Legislature has yet to discuss the matter and shows no sign that it will. If the City Grill slayings created momentum toward an earlier closing time, the momentum was fleeting, continuing a trend that has gone on for years.

The 4 a.m. closing time appears untouchable.

"If the business owners come forward and say in a unified voice we need to do something about this, I will step up and do something," said Legislature Chairwoman Barbara Miller-Williams, D-Buffalo. "But there has not been a public outcry or a private outcry for an earlier closing time."

In August, Miller-Williams vowed that county lawmakers would discuss the matter when they returned to work from their summer recess.

"It will be an item on our agenda," she said just days after four people were killed and four wounded in the spray of gunfire outside the City Grill on Main Street downtown.

But she said she has sensed no urgency from city officials or business owners to change the 4 a.m. closing time.

Any bar owner can close at any hour, she said, "2 a.m. or 3 a.m. or midnight, it's their decision."

State liquor laws give counties the power to set the closing time. For years, Erie County decreed 3 a.m. the closing time. Then, in the mid-1970s, it did away with its law and adopted the state's maximum hour of 4 a.m., apparently to accommodate factory workers who ended their shifts in the wee hours.

In 2003, then-Mayor Anthony M. Masiello asked county lawmakers to roll back the closing time to 2 a.m., but no action was taken. Bars and restaurants were about to face a state-imposed ban on smoking in their establishments, and many owners didn't want to deal with a second threat.

The directors of Buffalo Place, which maintains and promotes the downtown business district, had talked about an earlier closing time after a spate of violence in 2006.

"Nothing good happens outside bars between 2 and 4 in the morning," Chairman Keith Belanger said at the time.

Again, there was no change.

City Hall responded to the City Grill blood bath by, among other things, beefing up the police presence in Buffalo's busiest bar districts. But that didn't stop early morning violence.

In November, a student from Niagara County Community College was fatally stabbed at 4:30 a.m. in a fight along a block of the wildly popular Chippewa strip.

Bar patrons have been known to drive into Erie County after last calls in neighboring counties. Already tipsy, they endanger other drivers on the roads.

Buffalo police are trying to determine if alcohol was a factor in a fiery crash that killed two men early Saturday. Their sport utility vehicle was hit head-on by a driver going the wrong way on the Kensington Expressway at about 4:45 a.m.

While the City Grill shooting re-ignited discussions about an earlier closing time last summer, several bar owners interviewed also reason that the gruesome event would have occurred no matter what hour the bars close.

"To correlate the two is not entirely appropriate," said Mark D. Croce, a businessman and downtown bar owner who in August said he saw merit in an earlier closing, and still does. "The thing we need to do is promote a safe, secure and fun area through a continued police presence."

Croce said he still finds a 3 a.m. closing time to be reasonable.

Others are not so eager.

"I don't think turning back the hour would have made a difference," said William DeLuca, owner of Mr. Bill's Restaurant and Bar in Cheektowaga and a former regional president of the New York State Restaurant Association. "People who are going to be stupid between 2 and 4 are going to be stupid earlier."

He said he has found that people are ending their evenings earlier now that a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 -- rather than 0.10 -- triggers a driving while intoxicated charge.

County Legislator Thomas A. Loughran, D-Amherst, owns a popular bar and restaurant in the Snyder section of Amherst.

"Two or 3 a.m. would be certainly reasonable," Loughran said. "I think all that would happen is that people would come out earlier instead of later."

The Legislature last year had only a few weeks to deal with the issue of an earlier closing time.

"It's very difficult to get anything done once the budget is proposed. Basically from October to the end of the year it is all budget all the time," said Democratic Leader Maria R. Whyte of Buffalo. "Now would be the appropriate time. I would be ready for the chairwoman to make it a priority."

But the Legislature has few ardent advocates for such a move, and most lawmakers have said they are willing to discuss it but would look to the industry for guidance.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com