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Niagara Falls to pay student loans as lure

NIAGARA FALLS -- Niagara Falls in recent years has thrown open its doors to casino gambling, gay weddings and a tightrope walk.

It even briefly considered taking in toxic wastewater from hydraulic fracturing.

Now the city's embracing a plan to entice young people to move in by paying down their student loans.

After its old strategy of industry over tourism flopped amid the decline of Rust Belt manufacturing and the disastrous Love Canal contamination, a new Niagara Falls economic plan appears to have emerged: Try anything.

"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 lower than 50,000.

The latest idea is to cover two years' of student loan payments for recent college graduates who agree to live in a targeted neighborhood. Piccirillo said the tuition program will start with about 20 people. The idea has attracted interest from around the country, reflecting on Niagara Falls as an incubator for new ideas, Dyster said.

"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.

So, last July when it became legal for same-sex couples to marry in New York State, Niagara Falls organized an attention-grabbing group wedding with hopes of reviving its onetime reputation as "the honeymoon capital." A year later, wedding-related vendors say business is up 20 to 25 percent.

"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.

But there's no hiding the obvious financial hardship for the city. Dilapidated houses and boarded storefronts dot the city, this summer's Italian Festival was canceled for lack of sponsors and night games for varsity sports were scrapped for next season to save the school district the cost of lighting the field.

None of that discourages Nissa Morin, who said she hopes to participate in the tuition residency program. She has a bachelor's degree in music and sound recording from SUNY Fredonia and 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.

"How many times do you get the opportunity to come into a city and build the ideal neighborhood for yourself?" she said.

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