Niagara Gazette — In recent years, the city has thrown open its doors to casino gambling, gay weddings and a tightrope walk that, until laws were relaxed, would have meant arrest.
On the drawing board now is a plan to entice young people to move in by paying down their student loans. And it has definitely generated interest.
"If you piece together a series of wins, then I think it becomes transformative," Mayor Paul Dyster said, reflecting on efforts to reverse fortunes in a city where one in five people live in poverty and the population of 50,193 is less than half what it was in the 1960s.
More than $2 million in yearly block grants from the federal government could be in jeopardy if the number dips below 50,000.
"Less people means less attention in the government's eyes. ... You need people in your neighborhoods," said Community Development Director Seth Piccirillo.
The latest idea is to cover two years' worth of student loan payments for recent college graduates who agree to live in a targeted neighborhood. Piccirillo said the tuition program will start small, with about 20 people in the first round, but it has attracted interest from around the country.
And that's really the point, Dyster said, of using Niagara Falls as an incubator for new ideas.
"Anything you do at Niagara Falls, because it's a famous place, you get this exponential increase in the level of interest and the level of publicity that's generated," he said. "When you do it in Niagara Falls, it's the difference between speaking in a conversational voice and talking through a megaphone."
The overarching goal is to get people to set up shop here, or at least stick around long enough to spend money.
"The general mission is to obtain business. Whether it's new residents or new visitors, we're all on the same goal to better Niagara Falls in general," said John Percy, president of the Niagara Tourism & Convention Corp.
Nissa Morin hopes to get in on the tuition-residency program to help erase roughly $7,000 of her tuition debt. She has a bachelor's degree in music and sound recording from the State University of New York at Fredonia and is working on her master's degree in business administration from D'Youville College in Buffalo. She envisions establishing her own business in Niagara Falls, perhaps a recording studio or housing cooperative out of one of several old bed and breakfasts in need of rehabilitation in the downtown neighborhood chosen for the program.
The flow of tourists ensures businesses a potential customer base, she said, but Morin sees the need for more residents to enliven the area and spruce it up.
"How many times do you get the opportunity to come into a city and build the ideal neighborhood for yourself?"