Share this article

print logo

VILLAGE CIRCLES THE WAGONS AGAINST STORE CHAIN

Just the threat of Walgreen's is enough to send Williamsville residents into a tizzy.

First, there were rumors that the village's landmark hotel -- the Williamsville Inn at 5447 Main St. -- was up for sale and that the national drugstore chain with the neon sign was moving in. Add a wrecker's ball -- the purchase-for-demolition of three surrounding homes -- and visions of strip malls began dancing in the glen.

Maybe not.

Recent developments indicate Walgreen's may no longer be the front-runner in the race for this valuable corner at Main and Los Robles. A banking/retail complex has nudged the drugstore chain from favored-tenant status, sources said this weekend.

In fact, Williamsville Inn owner Halim A. Habib confirmed an option-to-purchase agreement in the range of $2 million has been signed by Benchmark Development Corp.

"A lot of people, they want to buy the place, but they don't have the money," Habib said during an interview at the Inn. "Everything is for sale if the price is right."

Jeff Birtch, chief operating officer for Benchmark, declined to comment on the Walgreen's debate.

"There's been a lot of talk, but no deals have been made," Birtch said. "It's just another proposed development."

When the Walgreen's rumor was spreading, residents responded with a petition drive against the drugstore chain. Village officials followed with plans for a six-month freeze on new construction. Witness a village mobilized to fight low-end development.

"No one listens to the citizens anymore," complained Chuck Rizzone, 50, a Williamsville resident for 25 years. "They listen to the developers. Walgreen's is unwelcome. They'll spend a lot of money and glue on a facade that is historically correct."

The village does not want a chain drugstore, the mayor said.

"We're afraid the village might be turned into some kind of strip plaza," explained Mayor Basil Piazza. "I don't particularly like the idea of a major chain coming in here and changing the nature of our business community. I guess we thought we were immune to major corporations coming into a village this size."

Village officials Monday night will address the growing concerns over development at a public hearing when they consider adopting a 180-day moratorium on demolition and construction of commercial buildings on Main Street. The freeze would not apply to already approved contracts or minor alterations, Piazza said.

The six-month freeze, Piazza said, would enable officials to update the village's master plan, written in 1982 but never adopted. The finished blueprint, if accepted, would govern growth along Main Street for the next two decades, the mayor said.

"I'm not saying we are fighting Walgreen's specifically," Piazza said. "But we like family-oriented small businesses."

Piazza pointed to Riverside Men's Shop and Montana Mills Bakery as two incoming businesses the village will welcome.

Residents agree.

"We're not opposed to business," Rizzone said. "We like Bonds. We like Bert Sweeney. We like Ed Youngs. We may pay 25 cents more, but it's in the neighborhood. The people are friendly. They talk to you."

Sweeney, who runs a men's wear shop on Main, said the personality of the village has already changed.

"I would prefer for the little guy to have a chance, but change is inevitable," Sweeney said. "I'd like to bring back that small-town feeling, but it's tough to do on a state highway."

The Williamsville Inn is part of that small-town feeling.

Habib bought the 100-room hotel in 1968 and saw business thrive during the 1970s and early 1980s, when airline flight crews regularly sought lodging. The Buffalo Braves, the city's professional basketball team, also were regular customers of the Inn, according to Habib.

"The place was hot," Habib said wistfully.

But times have changed, and the Inn has deteriorated -- as has Habib's health. The ailing entrepreneur is plagued by bad knees and a bum hip and said he is physically unable to do what it takes to maintain his business.

It's no secret that Habib thrives at the Inn. He daily holds court in his corner office, surrounded by miniature replicas of antique vehicles. If Habib had his way, he said he would like to see the site continue operating as a hotel.

Meanwhile, developers from Chicago, Florida, Niagara Falls -- not to mention Rochester and Amherst -- have courted Habib with offers to buy the hotel/restaurant/banquet facility.

"If they build small, they can build what they want," Habib said. "You can't stop it."

Pat Kelly, village attorney, confirmed that retail businesses would not have to request a rezoning, "assuming they have the proper parking," he said.

If the new building were to exceed 10,000 square feet, however, an Exceptional Development permit would be required, Kelly said, pending approval by the Village Board.

Rizzone, like others in the village, question the need for the demolition of a village landmark.

"Don't knock it down; it's an institution," Rizzone said.

"It's character. We're not East Aurora and we're not Orchard Park," he said. "We are different because we are surrounded by Amherst."

There are no comments - be the first to comment