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BRIDGE AUTHORITY'S PLAN TO MOVE DUTY-FREE SHOP IRKS CITY

Peace Bridge officials are on a fast track to move the duty-free store from Porter Avenue to their American plaza by Memorial Day, despite requests from City Hall officials and neighborhood groups to wait until a broad redevelopment plan is prepared.

"I'm not happy with it," Mayor Masiello said. "I'd prefer they keep it on Porter Avenue. It highlights the need for the Peace Bridge and the city to be on the same page."

The Peace Bridge is negotiating with the owner of the Ammex store and wants to complete a "temporary" 6,000-square-foot retail outlet and 60-car parking lot at the bridge by the end of May, said Stephen F. Mayer, Peace Bridge operations manager.

The authority wants the shop operating by Memorial Day to take advantage of the summer travel season. The building and parking lot would be located approximately in the middle of the plaza, between the east and west travel lanes. The current duty-free building would be used for storage.

"It's something Duty Free (owner of Ammex) has been talking to us about for years," Mayer said. "The (Peace Bridge) board has given us authority to work it out."

Steven Zurcher, vice president of Ammex, confirmed the talks and said his company would like to relocate to the plaza. He declined further comment.

The plan is a surprise to elected leaders and community groups. Peace Bridge officials have previously said they want to relocate the store as part of a proposed plaza expansion project, but an immediate transfer to the current plaza has been kept quiet.

"I didn't realize it until a couple of weeks ago," said Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda. "It caught me by surprise, and I counseled against it."

The concern is the Peace Bridge will move ahead with a $30 million plaza project that will yield no benefits to the economically-depressed Lower West Side -- and may add to its problems by removing residential and commercial properties from the tax roll.

Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, in a letter to the authority, said the Peace Bridge is displaying poor community relations by moving ahead with its plan.

"I have not been given a sufficient explanation as to why moving Ammex off the city's tax rolls and onto the PBA's property is critical to the present or future functioning of the Peace Bridge," Hoyt said.

Peace Bridge officials say revenue from the American duty-free store decreased by $800,000 between 1992 and 1994 and is projected to drop another $300,000 this year. They point to the current store's awkward arrangement as one of the problems.

Canada-bound customers shop for their goods at the Porter Avenue facility, but pick them up at a warehouse on the plaza. They also acknowledge the declining value of the Canadian dollar has played a role.

"Clearly, the exchange rate has hurt," Mayer said, "but the split operation doesn't entice shoppers' use of duty free."

The authority says rents paid by the U.S. and Canadian duty-free shops help reduce the need to raise tolls. A recent audit stated the Peace Bridge earned $2.7 million in revenues from those rentals in 1994.

Despite the poor performance of the U.S. duty-free shop, a recent private audit found the authority had a good year in 1994 with its operating income up 57 percent, from $2.57 million in 1993 to $4.06 million. Another favorable year is expected in 1995.

Although it's described as temporary, the store is expected to be used for five years, Mayer said. Critics point out that, by then, the newly enlarged plaza will be completed and a permanent duty-free shop built.

LaFalce said the authority should be moving in the opposite direction. Besides keeping the duty-free store on Porter, he suggested they relocate offices for the Peace Bridge, customs and immigration authorities to Porter and adjacent streets as well.

"I'd like to see maximum development on Porter Avenue," he said. "Anything they can get off the bridgehead and onto Porter Avenue is beneficial."

The authority's top priority should be to improve traffic flow on the plaza, something moving a duty-free shop there wouldn't help, LaFalce said. The next concern should be improving the area's appearance, he added.

Paula A. Rosner, chairwoman of a 75-member International Gateway District Task Force made up of West Side businesses, block clubs and government agencies, said the Peace Bridge has to go slow with its plans.

"If they proceed on a fast track, they run the risk of antagonizing some very influential and powerful parts of this region," she said. "It's in their best interest to slow the process down until a full analysis is done."

Masiello said he will be meeting with Peace Bridge officials next week to discuss a plan for the area. The authority has offered to give the city $50,000 to fund a redevelopment study.

"We're putting together a list of important issues we think are important to the West Side and the city," he said.

Larry Meckler, vice chairman of the Peace Bridge board, said the group is scheduled to discuss the duty-free store relocation at its March 31 meeting before making a final decision.

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