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Recent violence at downtown clubs prompts rare meeting; SLA, bar owners, police at session

Prompted by high-profile violent incidents at downtown clubs, the head of the State Liquor Authority brought a stern message to dozens of bar owners Thursday.

"I'm a great believer in rewarding those who do things right and punishing those who do things wrong," said Chairman Dennis Rosen.

Rosen stressed that bar owners should not rely on event promoters to handle security and are responsible for every facet of their operations.

"If something goes wrong at that event, it will be you and not the promoter who will be facing discipline and a possible loss of your license," Rosen said.

Rosen also noted that bar owners must take responsibility for what happens outside their establishments.

The rare meeting bringing together SLA officials, law enforcement officials, city leaders, nightclub owners and event promoters was called in the wake of the stabbings of two men at the Town Ballroom earlier this month and last summer's City Grill shootings in which four people were killed and four others wounded.

Jay Manno, president of the Buffalo Entertainment District Association, agreed with Rosen. "You can't push the problems that start in your bar onto the street and just expect police to handle it," he said.

Manno, who owns the Soho Bar on Chippewa Street, said one of the problems is that some bar owners are reluctant to call police about outside disturbances because they're afraid it might give their businesses a "black eye" with the SLA. He said it was good to hear state regulators say that they want businesses to call police.

Rosen said bar owners can't be held responsible for a problem that was unpreventable and erupts spontaneously.

"We will not penalize you if you act promptly and call the police," he said.

The SLA chief said his agency is making strides in becoming more business-friendly.

"We want to get out of the way of the responsible businessman," Rosen said. But he was quick to add that irresponsible operators will be punished.

More than 50 people attended the meeting. The session was arranged by Ellicott Council Member Darius G. Pridgen.

SLA officials also reminded bar owners that all their security personnel must be licensed by the state. Regulations require security people to take an eight-hour course and receive 16 hours of on-the-job training.

Pridgen said he suspects that a majority of the security staff working in downtown bars are not properly licensed. He suggested staging a "massive" training session for security people.

Bar owners were urged to develop security plans for events, then submit the plans to the Buffalo Police Department for review.

City officials also are eyeing a new law that would require all nightclubs to notify police in advance of events. Artie Kwitchoff, owner of the Town Ballroom at 681 Main St., said his nightclub already notifies police of events that are being planned.

Manno said it's not the bars that are causing public safety issues, but rather the "demographic" that comes to some events.

"That's the problem," he said. "Certain times of the year, certain events take place that bring an element down there that causes this violence."

But Manno added that some establishments attract a "bad element."

"If I booked a party or a concert or a venue where I felt the need to have metal detectors or have people patted down at the door, lock my doors, I don't want to be open anymore. That's a personal thing," Manno said.

Pridgen, who represents much of downtown, said he believes this is the first time dozens of nightclub owners have met with SLA officials, the chief of the Central District Police Station, city attorneys and community activists in one room to discuss safety.

Brent Garner, owner of the Purple Monkey Tropical Pub at 236 Delaware Ave., said Thursday's meeting was intended to "break the ice" and "dance around" some very broad issues. A follow-up meeting will be held April 6.

"I think everyone is just trying to keep their businesses alive more than anything," Garner said.

Central District Chief Brian Patterson stressed that officers assigned to downtown often have many special events that must be taken into consideration. "We rely heavily on operators to be responsible in terms of running their businesses," Patterson told the group. "We just do not have the resources to police everyone."

About an hour after the meeting began, Pridgen said he "sensed tension" in the room. Most bar owners appeared reluctant to share their views. That's when Pridgen asked the media to leave so the parties could have a "candid" discussion. Pridgen said he believes the session was a "good start" to address numerous concerns.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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