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Tralf open, but damage is done City mismanagement of music jewel symbolizes failed downtown efforts

The tragedy at the Tralf -- an internationally recognized venue for jazz excellence -- has little to do with permits for dancing. The shame to be shared by Mayor Anthony M. Masiello and Theater Place's owner, Acquest Properties, is for allowing it to fall into disrepute.

The Tralfamadore Cafe probably had greater claims to fame in its jazz niche than anything Buffalo offers after the Bills. But did the city protect this asset during a year of new management? Did the operator, with no more expertise in running a jazz club than flying an airplane, get proper vetting? News reporter James Heaney wrote a story in June that sent a clarion warning about the club's problems that City Hall -- chiefly the mayor and his inspections commissioner -- somehow still failed to heed. While the city spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on three failed brew pubs across the street, it refused to adequately watchdog a venue that brought hundreds of thousands of paying customers to Theater Place.

Among the city's early mistakes was to allow Acquest, for $460,000, to take over Theater Place, the Tralf's home. That proceeded without the mayor making sure Acquest's President William Huntress and former Tralf owner Bobby Militello solved their differences over rent to keep the club's sophisticated reputation intact. It's not easy keeping a jazz club alive, but Militello poured his heart and $250,000 into trying. Why didn't Huntress care? Instead, Acquest gained title in 2002, Militello threw in the towel and last July Acquest leased the club to Rohit Kapoor, whose father has ties to Acquest. Is there a clearer recipe for disaster?

For his part, Kapoor says he's had no more problems than any other downtown business, that bookings are up -- we'll see -- and he forecasts a much improved future. Masiello says that since inspectors last week found the Tralf safe, it's better open than closed. Huntress declined to discuss the Tralf, except to say he's much happier with Kapoor running it than Militello.

But running it where? Into the ground? And how long can it survive, given its underlying problems. Acquest got a price below what the city had paid into Theater Place over the years and thus had a responsibility to regard the Tralf as the public treasure it is, not simply as another income property. Businesses need to recognize when their decisions can damage the city. City Hall needed to follow through protectively and proactively. Their irresponsibility leaves the music scene poorer in a city where national assets don't lodge on every corner.

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