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BRIDGE PANEL COMMITS TO MOVING DUTY-FREE SHOP TO PLAZA

The Peace Bridge Authority Friday committed to moving the duty-free store from Porter Avenue to its Buffalo toll plaza, despite neighborhood and elected officials' opposition.

Though the authority took no formal action Friday, its members expressed unanimous approval for the move in a bid to bolster duty-free revenues that have sagged in recent years.

"Now I'm committed that it's the way to go," said Lawrence M. Meckler, representing the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority at the meeting. "It's in our best interest and the public's best interest."

"This will be of great benefit to the bridge," added authority member Vincent J. Sorrentino, "because our overall tolls are determined by streams of revenue other than tolls."

Plans call for a new 6,000-square-foot Ammex duty-free facility and 60-car parking area at the entrance to the bridge. 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.

But a host of officials, including Mayor Masiello, Rep. John J. LaFalce and Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, have raised objections. They questioned the wisdom of removing the business from the city's tax rolls. They also say Ammex could be part of a larger effort to encourage business development in the Peace Bridge area.

Charles R. Cimasi, a neighborhood businessman and member of the Peace Bridge-Columbus Park Association, said after the meeting that he continues to question the authority's plans to constrict the current bridge approach with the new store while also asking for more city and private land to expand the plaza for traffic.

"There is absolutely no need to expand the footprint of the plaza except for Ammex," he said. "It will displace the neighborhood to bring in a for-profit operation to sell cheap, tax-free booze."

Masiello's spokesman was unavailable for comment.

But authority officials say they expect the traveling public will react positively to the move because it ends the current "split" operation involving placing a duty-free order on Porter Avenue and then picking up the purchase at a warehouse on the plaza.

Ronald H. Lampman, the authority's secretary-treasurer, said the split operation helped improve traffic flow but confused the duty-free setup.

"That is a key element, because if you see things you're more apt to pick them up," he said.

Lampman also explained that revenues have declined from $1.892 million in 1991 to $1.092 million in 1994 -- representing a decrease from 16 percent of the bridge's operating revenue to 7.5 percent.

"And we're looking to go to the bond market (for various construction projects), so a lot of our figures are being scrutinized by the bond market," he said.

Cimasi declined to say if his group is studying any legal options other than to say it is "observing the situation."

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