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Bringing confidence to downtown Falls; New community development chief is a 29-year-old with a decidedly upbeat outlook

Signs of progress have risen slowly from a downtown landscape that for years was mired in urban decay.

Old Falls Street now connects Niagara Falls State Park and the Seneca Niagara Casino. Niagara County Community College will open its culinary institute this fall. And a well-known Buffalo developer plans to build an upscale hotel in the heart of downtown.

But within walking distance of those developments, large patches of vacant, blighted housing are an ugly reminder of the city's decline.

Seth Piccirillo wants to change that.

Piccirillo, the city's new community development director, has the task of reviving neighborhoods that have been bleeding population for decades. He will also oversee efforts to plan housing for a downtown that, because of the culinary institute, will soon see an influx of students.

The Niagara Falls native acknowledges the job won't be easy. But he believes the city, if it can raise the money, could someday compete with others as a hip destination for young people.

"I've seen it work in other places," he said this month. "I'm confident we can get it done here."

Piccirillo said the city must make its communities more "livable" with quality-of-life improvements that can encourage current residents and attract new ones. Similar strategies have worked in Pittsburgh, Seattle and Austin, Texas, he said.

"Our strategy here is going to be neighborhood-building," Piccirillo said. "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?"

Parts of that strategy are already in place. The city recently held a public meeting to take stock of its parks and open spaces. Niagara University has also been working with city residents to improve access to health care in the inner city.

Piccirillo said the city needs to demolish vacant houses that are beyond repair and encourage the rehabilitation of others. It should also create incentives for investment in key areas that will draw businesses, he said.

Obstacles remain, though, to addressing the problem of housing. Because the city has not received the expected $50 million in slot machine revenues from the Seneca Niagara Casino, city officials said fewer demolitions will occur this year.

The ZOOM enforcement team, which reports code violations and cleans blighted areas in the city, will also suffer from the cutbacks, as will road-paving and other neighborhood projects. The city's five revitalization coordinators lost their stipends in January.

City officials said funding expertise was one of the reasons Piccirillo was hired.

Previously, he worked as manager of government affairs for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, where he served as a point of contact for local elected leaders and managed the NFTA's local, state and national grants.

"He was very proficient in carrying out his duties and was considered to be an asset to the overall operation," said NFTA spokesman C. Douglas Hartmayer. "He was always prepared going into meetings -- he always had a file."

Before that, Piccirillo worked as a legislative aide to then-Assemblywoman Francine DelMonte.

City Council Chairman Sam Fruscione said he expects Piccirillo to "vigorously" raise money for the city. Piccirillo said securing funds has never been more important as a way to sustain operations.

"There's just less money than there was in the past, but there are competitive funding sources we can go after," such as U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grants and funds from the state's regional economic-development council, Piccirillo said.

The department's $2.6 million budget is best used to target the areas of the city that need it the most, rather than sprinkling aid evenly, he added.

But to truly turn the city around, Piccirillo said, leaders will have to sell their community.

Revitalization efforts should aim to make the city a stable and attractive destination for young professionals and families, who might buy their first home there and then stay much longer, he said.

"I think [he has] the ability to look at a neighborhood and see what it would take for this to become a cool neighborhood," said Mayor Paul A. Dyster.

During his re-election campaign, Dyster said addressing the housing problem -- particularly by rehabilitating, eliminating blight and "place-setting" for development -- is the city's "next step."

"One of the opportunities we need to get working on is what we're going to do with housing, particularly in the downtown area," he said.

NCCC's culinary school is expected to bring nearly 500 students downtown for the fall semester, and college President James P. Klyczek recently said students' No. 1 concern is finding housing. This semester, some may live in a Niagara Falls Boulevard hotel, he said.

In addition, a partnership with Niagara University aims to start a housing project for NU graduates in residential areas of the city, Dyster said. Niagara students once flocked to Third Street before the entertainment district declined.

The city's selling points in attracting young people, Piccirillo said, will be the city's natural resources, its proximity to NU and an entertainment scene that needs young people to define it.

"In today's economy, things are different," Piccirillo said. "People are making major life decisions based on 'Where do I want to live?' You can't just think about jobs. You've got to be thinking about jobs and housing at the same time. We don't want them at 5 o'clock to just leave."

City officials believe that Piccirillo, 29, is the person the city needs to attract young people and families.

"The thought of having new young blood in this position is exciting to me," said Councilwoman Kristen M. Grandinetti. "I think he's bright. I love it that he's young and local and he's going to raise his family here."

DelMonte said, "I think he'd be an inspiration to other young people in the city that would see his position and his work as a means of staying in city and helping it grow. He believes in the city, and he wants to see it prosper."

It has been "frustrating" watching his hometown decay and its residents leave, Piccirillo said. But the LaSalle resident said he hopes to make a noticeable impact in the next three to five years.

"I want to be talking about a neighborhood that is getting national attention," he said. "I want to be describing to people how we did that. I want to be telling people how we made investments to help the lives of residents."