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Future bright for stores on rail line

Yes, Kevin Cantwell is excited. You would be too. Not much has happened the past 15 years along this stretch of Main Street. Business at the Iron Crown, his storefront games/comics store, has been decent but not door-busting. Now there is a 250-unit apartment building coming, just a throw of the dice up the street.

“Absolutely, that will help my business,” Cantwell told me, on a rainy Friday. “Kids, young professionals, families – they all play.”

Cantwell didn’t think much about this when he bought the place 15 years ago. But his store stands across the street from the Metro Rail’s Lasalle Street station. The proximity is nice – kids at the ECC City Campus use the train to get to his store. The proximity is about to get a lot nicer.

The Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus – six metro stops south of Cantwell’s store – is exploding. With the coming University at Buffalo Medical School and a relocated Women & Children’s Hospital, some 17,500 people will soon be working there. Parking is limited. Which is prompting developers to build apartment buildings – which they expect to fill with BNMC workers – near Metro Rail stops. The 250-unit building planned at Lasalle and Main is one of a half-dozen apartment projects in the works near transit stations.

The BNMC-driven demand for housing near Metro Rail stations will jack up property values. The rain of medical students, residents, nurses and doctors into those neighborhoods will bring blooms of stores, coffee shops and restaurants – and lift existing businesses. Thirty years after it opened, the promise of Metro Rail – development around each of its stations – will finally be kept.

“This gives people more reason to move into Buffalo, or to stay,” Cantwell noted. “And health care is not going to fade away, like the steel industry.”

He is 49, bearded, a UB grad who riffs as easily about Buffalo’s fresh-water resources as he does about the latest edition of “Dominant Species.” His storefront shop is a playground for gamers, many from nearby UB South. The clientele for “A Touch of Evil” and other board games – which sell for upward of $60 – ranges from high schoolers through the 20-something professionals who will populate the BNMC campus.

“If they have friends coming over on the weekend,” said Cantwell, “they come in to pick up the latest game.”

The more potential gamers in the neighborhood, and along the rail line, the better for Cantwell.

“It’s a city,” said Cantwell. “You build stuff around where things happen.”

Although the 6.5-mile rail line did not, as originally planned, extend to UB North, it fortuitously runs along the downtown spine. Clustering health care destinations near the Allen/Medical Campus station gives the line a commuter transfusion which, in turn, jacks up the appeal of station neighborhoods. It is a growth formula, given the right variables.

After 30 years, the “Train to Nowhere” has finally found its somewhere. Better late than never.