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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Moo-ving cows can lead the way for Suffolk

Airport Plaza, the future location of a full

Airport Plaza, the future location of a full Stew Leonard's. Photo Credit: Michael Dobie

The singing cows are coming!

Yup, a Stew Leonard's grocery store is finally arriving on Long Island -- 14 years after the Disneyfied dairy-store chain began its effort to open what will now be its fifth outlet, on Route 110 in East Farmingdale.

The reaction, mostly, has been euphoria among Long Islanders who have visited Stew Leonard's stores in Yonkers and Connecticut and love the local produce, meats, seafood and, yes, the holiday displays, costumed characters and animatronic cows.

Others are amazed. They remember the pitched battle over Stew's original proposed site on the other side of Route 110 -- directly under a flight path for Republic Airport -- and the contentious public hearings, and, ultimately, lawsuits over whether shoppers would be in danger from the planes overhead. Years went by, nothing happened, and most people assumed Stew Leonard's had given up.

But the real significance of the Stew Leonard's moving into the former Dave & Buster's is not shopper joy or retailer perseverance. It's the role Stew will play in redeveloping the entire area. And that has implications for all of Long Island.

Let's start with the long-discussed reopening of the Long Island Rail Road's old Republic train station, just across Conklin Street from the new Stew's. Babylon Town Supervisor Richard Schaffer says getting the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to commit to rebuilding the station hinged on people being there to use it. The town is seeking a master developer to add housing and retail on the site -- a kind of mini-downtown on a train line.

Stew Leonard's makes such a development more attractive for residents, and adds 400 workers of its own. And it's one of those destination stores that will attract tons of customers and serve as a strong anchor for the Airport Plaza mall in which it sits.

Some of those shoppers and workers will arrive by train: The LIRR is building a second track between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma, making two-way travel easier. Living along that stretch will be thousands of residents in new mixed-use developments being built in Ronkonkoma, Wyandanch and Farmingdale.

It's part of a vision articulated more than a decade ago by Steve Bellone, the Babylon supervisor between Schaffer's two tenures and now the Suffolk County executive. Bellone saw Route 110 as a 21st century Main Street for Long Island: Republic Airport, Broad Hollow Bioscience Park at Farmingdale State College, lots of prime office space and a new railroad station and housing -- all stitched together with the double track and a rapid bus system moving workers, shoppers and students and creating a high-tech corridor and economic generator.

Now Babylon is talking to the college and a developer about building student housing at the new train station. And Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo wants to establish a tax-free zone at the airport to turn the facility into a commerce hub. Hopefully -- and it's a big and critical hope -- this all leads to more of the high-paying jobs our region desperately needs.

A 21st century Main Street needs 21st century infrastructure to make it work. That's what Babylon and Suffolk are working on. But you also have to make the area livable. That's where Stew Leonard's comes in.

This is what progress looks like. It's incremental. It's bit by precious bit. And at some point, you see the pieces moving closer and forming some semblance of a new picture.

There's a lot more going on here than musical heifers.

It's the long game, but it's the one worth playing.

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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