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A family that has operated a West Side grocery store for 74 years called it quits Sunday, with the owner claiming it was impossible to pay escalating energy bills and other expenses in a declining neighborhood.

Ganci's Food Mart at 319 Massachusetts Ave. near 15th Street closed after encountering mounting financial problems. Frank Ganci said his grandparents opened the first store in 1926, before delis even had refrigerators. He said the family sunk $250,000 into a new store 11 years ago. When it opened at its current site, it employed 27 people. On its closing day, it had two workers on its payroll.

Ganci said he contemplated the shutdown for over a year.

"I've been thinking about it for a long time, but I didn't want to do it. This has been my entire life," he said Monday as he emptied the shelves.

The store's financial woes surfaced publicly in February when the city's main development agency released a list of businesses that were more than 90 days late in paying loans made by the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp.

Ganci said he will probably file for bankruptcy, estimating that the business has about $250,000 in debts. The building is likely to be turned over to banks.

In June, the store stopped retailing gasoline after it fell behind in paying its petroleum supplier. Ganci said other costs, including utilities, continued to mount.

"You face some outrageous expenses when you're trying to operate a business," said Ganci. "My utility bills were unbelievable. I couldn't afford to turn on my air conditioner this summer."

Ganci said city officials must share some of the blame for what he describes as a poor climate for small businesses, especially neighborhood food stores. He criticized the city for doing little to target delicatessens that sell untaxed cigarettes, sell beer to minors and engage in other unscrupulous acts.

"Competition is good, as long as it's fair competition," he said. "The city apparently doesn't have the time or the commitment to deal with these kind of problems and help our neighborhood."

In recent months, some have called on the city to reinstitute the Deli Task Force, a special squad that was created in the mid-1990s within the Buffalo Police Department. The squad was the focus of legal action two years ago, after some argued that the task force engaged in selective prosecution of delis operated by Arab-Americans.

Mayor Anthony M. Masiello disagreed with Ganci's assessment, describing it as "bitterness" from a businessman whose problems were "partially self-inflicted." Masiello was referring to the fact that about a decade ago, the food market lost its eligibility to participate in the WIC Program, a special supplemental food program for children in low-income families.

"I feel badly that Ganci's is closing, but I disagree with his comments about the city," said Masiello. "We've been working closely with block clubs, demolishing properties and increasing patrols. The city even invested in Ganci's business."

Ganci noted that there was far more competition among neighborhood food stores back in the 1940s and 1950s, when there seemed to be a "mom-and-pop" store on almost every West Side street corner. But he said there were also more families living in the neighborhood with higher household disposable incomes than exist today.

"I wouldn't advise anyone to go into this type of business today, not with the economic times we're seeing in the city," said Ganci.

Stephen Cherico, a West Side resident who has shopped at Ganci's for 35 years, called the development a "sad situation" for the neighborhood. Cherico, the sergeant at arms for the West Side Business and Taxpayers' Association, described the neighborhood as "distressed" and said it suffers some significant problems.

"The area is going down the toilet, big-time. There are too many empty buildings, too many absentee landlords and too many drug houses around here," Cherico said.

But association president Joseph Tomasulo said he thinks major strides have been made in recent years and that there are signs of a "turnaround" in the neighborhood. Tomasulo said he thinks Ganci's problems stem mainly from changes in people's shopping habits.

"You have more people going to the big supermarkets these days," said Tomasulo. "As a result, a lot of the mom-and-pop stores are having a rough time."

Ganci, 48, said he's currently looking for another job. He said this has been a particularly tough year for him and his family. Ganci was hit by a truck in February and spent several months recuperating.

He said closing the family deli was an agonizing task.

"We locked the doors at around eight on Sunday night, then had 50 of our close friends and neighbors come in one last time," said Ganci "We cried on each other's shoulders. It was a pretty emotional scene."

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