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STARBUCKS OPPONENTS CAN VOTE WITH THEIR FEET

It's easy to understand the concern of the local business people who run the distinctive coffee houses along Buffalo's Elmwood Avenue. They have struggled to develop an urban market. They have taken the risks in the city when many others were bailing out.

Now, here comes a fast-growing, successful international chain to try to cut in on the action.

Starbucks, the Seattle-based giant, is ready to lease a vacant lot at 931 Elmwood Ave. and build its first Buffalo outlet after incursions into area suburbs. The site is less than 50 yards from one of the locally owned coffee places.

The coffee-shop owners and other Elmwood businessmen are fighting back by asking their loyal patrons to sign petitions urging the Common Council to deny permission for the Starbucks store.

But the fact of the matter is that City Hall can't block Starbucks simply because it threatens existing businesses. Perhaps if a rezoning of the site were required, the city would have more power. But the Elmwood location is properly zoned for business. Long before Starbucks showed up, it was a commercial strip.

City Hall does have a series of hurdles the new business must clear. They involve lot size, building height, parking, landscaping, architecture, fencing, noise and the potential for public disruption. A judgment that the well-financed chain might put a worthy locally owned business in a tough financial fix is not a valid reason to deny the Starbucks project, however much city officials -- and many others -- might prefer David to Goliath.

Yes, there are some things the city could do. Stressing community opposition, the city might well encourage Starbucks to seek a location farther away from existing coffee cafes. City officials might point out some sites away from Elmwood, some place where the chain would be developing the market, not crowding in on it. Officials might encourage Starbucks to include a much-desired bookstore in its plans.

But if Starbucks comes to Elmwood as it plans to, the market will have to decide what happens. If the patrons of the local shops -- those petition-signers -- want to protect their favorite places, they can vote with their feet. If they consider an international chain a threat to the Elmwood ambience, they can avoid the new guys on the block. They can walk on by. It's as simple as that.

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