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Nightspots struggle with perceptions

Jay Manno had one more thing to say before he got off the phone.

"Be nice. Please be nice."

Manno, co-owner of Soho Bar and president of the Buffalo Entertainment District Association, had a self-imposed gag order before last week. He didn't want to talk about Chippewa Street unless it was positive.

"Because every time they see my face," Manno explained, "they think, 'What happened at Soho? What happened downtown?' "

In Manno's world, perception is huge, and talk about violence doesn't make for good business. Thousands of people circulate through his two-story nightclub at Chippewa and Franklin every year without incident, but that's not the kind of thing that makes headlines.

"Twentysomethings had good time, got home safely," just doesn't cut it as news.

Manno is sensitive about the image of the city's entertainment district because he's been here before. One flare-up of violence can overshadow dozens of problem-free nights.

This time around, two men were stabbed during a rap concert at the Town Ballroom. The City Grill shootings are still painfully fresh.

With those as a backdrop, the head of the State Liquor Authority met last week with law enforcement and bar owners. He brought a warning that bar owners are responsible for what happens in and around their premises and an assurance that they would not be penalized for reporting one-time disturbances to police.

The meeting, as described by Ellicott Common Council Member Darius G. Pridgen, was a chance to clear the air and, when the cameras left, have a frank discussion about problems facing the city's nightlife.

Police have no formal system to learn of events at private establishments. Others worry that police don't have the right tools, or that there's an uneven playing field for different bars. All seem like issues that should be addressed.

Manno had seen this type of meeting before. Each time there is violence at a downtown nightclub, the dialogue resumes.

Manno left feeling "cautiously optimistic." He is encouraged by Pridgen's passion in bringing everyone from the police to the Liquor Authority together.

"It is worth it if the lines of communication can be opened from the business owners to City Hall to express our concerns and offer some suggestions," said Artie Kwitchoff, Town Ballroom owner.

But Manno has seen these meetings come and go before with little follow-up on promises made. Last year, he said, the city committed to buying a paddy wagon and creating taxi stands in the Chippewa district. He's still waiting for both.

A paddy wagon, Manno believes, would help keep officers on the streets, rather than at the holding center processing arrests. Taxi stands would make the neighborhood more orderly.

Michael DeGeorge, spokesman for the Buffalo Police Department and for Mayor Byron W. Brown, said the department is "looking at the options" for reducing the amount of time it takes officers to process offenders. The city, he said, is "moving forward and making progress" on taxi stands.

For someone who had a self-imposed "gag order" to only talk about the positive, Manno is frank about what is at the root of public safety concerns. The way he describes it, there is a "society problem" in which gangster lifestyles are glamorized. Then, he says, there's the "perception issue."

The reality is there has been violence downtown, including one of the worst shootings in the city's history. But it's also reality that the vast majority of people who party in the city's downtown nightclubs make it home safely without incident.

It's the perception -- that downtown nightlife is dangerous for all -- where people are getting it wrong.

e-mail: djgee@buffnews.com

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