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Falls floats loan plan to spark change

Can you pay for youth?

That was the question that arose like the mist from Niagara Falls last week amid all the headlined hype shrouding Wallenda's walk.

Forbes asked it. (Would you move to a city that paid your student loans?) So did the Atlantic Cities. (Can Niagara Falls grow again?)

It's the central question behind a new proposal in Niagara Falls aimed at attracting young college graduates to move into a downtown neighborhood that's at its tipping point.

The idea -- which has yet to get official approval -- is to attract recent college graduates to live in downtown Niagara Falls by offering to reimburse up to $7,000 of their college loan payments during a two-year period.

It's a novel idea, but also one that deserves plenty of scrutiny in a city still trying to shake a reputation shaped decades ago by mobsters and hucksters.

City and state officials have focused intensely since Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel opened on revamping the city's downtown. Millions have gone into rebuilding streets. Grants have gone to hotels, cafes and market-rate apartments, and Niagara County Community College plans to open a culinary arts institute this fall.

Despite progress, it hasn't been enough to overcome the vacant storefronts and boarded-up houses that can sour a first impression of anyone looking for a new home -- especially twentysomethings searching for a trendy neighborhood.

How do cash-strapped graduates burdened by college debt choose where to live? If it's not at mom and dad's -- a popular choice these days given the cost of attending some colleges -- then it's all about neighborhood vitality.

Restaurants and shops. Funky festivals. Coffee houses and bars. Other young people.

The neighborhood surrounding the area where the Falls plans to offer the incentive to graduates already has a wine bar, a coffee shop, a gelato cafe and more. But it doesn't have the critical mass of residents or retail needed to turn the neighborhood around.

That's a major Catch-22 for downtown Niagara Falls, setting aside, for a moment, the notion that this is a tourist town with unique needs. You can't attract an influx of up-and-comers with a street lined with empty windows, and you can't fill the storefronts without an influx of new people.

"We are at a point where we can't just look at incremental improvement," said Seth Piccirillo, the city's 29-year-old director of community development who first floated the graduate incentive idea in City Hall. "We need a shot in the arm if we actually want success."

Money for the program -- estimated to cost $200,000 for the first two years for reimbursements for 20 graduates, plus administrative costs -- would come from funds the city has set aside from the sale of property it acquired in the 1960s and 1970s with federal urban renewal dollars.

Niagara Falls officials have landed in trouble before because of development efforts gone awry, and Piccirillo is acutely aware that City Hall needs to keep its image squeaky-clean if it's going to escape its reputation.

Criteria for the program, he said, will be developed carefully, and the selection of the first 20 participants will be randomized from those who are eligible.

"We want to make sure that this is professionally managed and shows success," Piccirillo said.

Tens of millions of dollars of government money have gone into redevelopment efforts in downtown Niagara Falls during the last 50 years. They've paid developers to build. They've paid demolishers to tear down, and they've paid developers to build again.

Maybe it is time they try something a little different.

email: djgee@buffnews.com