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Fresh thinking in Falls Proposal to attract college graduates by paying off loans is worth pursuing

This is what they mean by thinking outside the box: Niagara Falls Community Development Director Seth A. Piccirillo wants to make a deal with recent college graduates: Come live in specified areas near the waterfall and the city will pay your student loans for up to two years. It is a unique and creative idea for helping to change the direction of the struggling city.

At 29 years old, Piccirillo isn't that far out of college, himself – a fact that has no doubt influenced development of this plan and that could also help sell it to its target audience: graduates who have received two- or four-year degrees within the past two years, or those in graduate school.

Of special interest are graduates of Niagara University and Niagara County Community College, but city leaders also have their eyes on graduates who work in Buffalo and even those from other parts of the country. Many young people would love help paying off loans that can be long-term burdens. The advantages would be financial, economic and social.

Perhaps most critical is to prevent the city's population from falling under 50,000 in the 2020 census. Were that to occur – and, without some kind of change, it seems likely – the city would lose eligibility for assistance under some federal programs. It would be a loss from which it would be difficult to recover.

But this program, if city lawmakers approve it, could do more than bolster the city's population. It would also bring new blood to the downtown area, helping to draw in new businesses, fast-tracking state and federal grants to deal with blight and, perhaps most appealingly, seeking to create a version of Buffalo's Elmwood Village.

Mayor Paul A. Dyster understands the issue. "Trying to revitalize a downtown without young people is like trying to get bread to rise without yeast." It's an apt analogy.

The plan appears to be unique and, thus, untested. But it won't cost a fortune, either. Under the plan, the city would pay up to $3,500 a year of student loans for two years. The money would be paid at the end of each year that the graduates meet their obligations under the program, which would be funded from a city Urban Renewal Agency account. For the first round, the city is looking for 20 applicants.

Piccirillo was the focus of a profile in The Buffalo News last month. He is optimistic: "I've seen [the work of reviving neighborhoods] work in other places," he told The News. "I'm confident we can get it done here." He is pragmatic: "Our strategy here is going to be neighborhood-building. Can you take your child to school? Can he walk to a park? Is there public safety? Open spaces? Is there affordable and equitable housing?" And, plainly, he is resourceful.

Not enough is known yet about the program for city lawmakers to jump on board, but enough is known of the city's problems for them to look enthusiastically into its possibilities. Something needs to be done and this program offers something tangible and affordable to the very kind of people needed to begin doing the job. This is worth the time to evaluate.