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Strong grounds were heard Thursday from both sides in the brewing controversy over plans by Starbucks to open a fifth local coffee shop -- this one on Elmwood Avenue.

Nearly 300 residents and business-people met in the Unitarian Universalist Church on Elmwood to hear a panel discussion and ask questions.

Businessman Michael Attardo, president of Forever Elmwood, sponsor of the forum, said the Elmwood strip is special because its residents and entrepreneurs rely on "self-empowerment."

If Starbucks had come to the community and discussed its plans, Attardo said, the result might have been a bookstore and coffee shop, something Starbucks has done elsewhere with Barnes & Noble.

"This is a community issue," real estate executive Carol Holcberg said. "I invite Starbucks to not try and beat us at anything, but to come in on a level playing field."

"They are welcome in almost any other part of the city," said John B. Maggiore, chief of staff for Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo. "But they could damage existing businesses on Elmwood."

Heather Rose, handling publicity for Starbucks, said the chain has stores at Maple and Transit roads in Amherst; on Main Street in Williamsville; on Galleria Drive in Cheektowaga; and on the Amherst Campus of the University at Buffalo.

Lori Peterson, Starbucks senior manager, spoke about the chain's presence in Western New York and its plans for Elmwood. She said Starbucks looked at many buildings but thought that it should build on the vacant lot at 931 Elmwood, two doors from an existing coffee shop.

"We're not here to swallow up all your money," she said. "We're not here to destroy Elmwood businesses. We cherish the small community businesses. We have an opportunity, however, to make a contribution. It's not going to be a huge store. Please take the time to get to know us."

Asked what Starbucks can give the community that has become prosperous through its small businesses, she said the firm would be a good, law-abiding neighbor, noting that it often supports grass-roots charities.

Attorney Gary L. Mucci assured residents that the zoning on Elmwood favors preservation of the neighborhood's character and has "hoops" that newcomers must jump through.

Kevin T. Greiner, the city's planning director, said Starbucks must pass three layers of review: a special zoning variance for the Elmwood business district, a citywide site-review ordinance that deals with "the look and feel of the building, parking and landscaping," and restricted-use permits. He said two hearings will be held Tuesday -- at 8:30 a.m. before the Planning Board and at 2 p.m. before the Common Council.

Some chided the Elmwood community for opposing Starbucks. "It's here, and I don't know how we can turn our backs," said Barbara Bielecki. "We need to live up to our name as City of Good Neighbors."

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