Like many small towns, Niagara Falls, N.Y., has been bleeding residents for decades, as young people move away in search of excitement and jobs. But the new local director of community development, Seth Piccirillo, has a plan to woo young people back: He's offering new graduates and young professionals help paying off their student loans ... and all they have to do is move to Niagara. Here, a guide to the town's sweetheart deal, and others like it:
Why does Niagara Falls need young people so badly?
Its population was around 100,000 nearly 50 years ago, but it has been cut nearly in half since. "We've lost a lot of talent, a lot of brain power," Piccirillo tells ABC News. "For 50 years we've been asking ourselves: How do we keep our young people?" The question is even more critical now, because there's a danger that in the next census Niagara Falls' population will drop below 50,000, causing it to lose some forms of federal assistance.
How will paying graduates' student loans help?
With 94 percent of students graduating with outstanding loans, Piccirillo says, offering debt relief seemed like a good way to get their attention. The town wants to get energetic, educated young people to move into a designated depressed neighborhood downtown that the local government is trying to revitalize. Any recent graduate — from college or grad school — can get up to $3,500 a year for two years to put toward paying off student loans. The pool of $200,000 set aside for the program will be offered first to graduates of a local university and community college, but the plan is to eventually open up the program to people from out of state.
Will it work?
A similar program in rural Kansas seems to be having an impact. Fifty counties have established Rural Opportunity Zones (ROZs) offering state income tax waivers for up to five years, and student loan repayments of up to $15,000 for new residents. The idea is to reverse the fortunes of counties that have been shrinking. So far, 338 people have applied — 111 of them from out of state — and new applications are streaming in at the rate of one per day. We wanted to attract young professionals, says Chris Harris, the program's manager, "and that's what we have seen — health professionals, teachers, veterinarians, accountants, and a surprising number of lawyers."
Can this formula help towns everywhere?
That remains to be seen. Bribing young people seems like a "crazy plan," says Adriana Velez at The Stir, but it also seems to be working. The catch, however, is that these young people are going to wake up at some point and realize that they're stuck in the kind of podunk location kids have been fleeing for decades. These towns will have to provide jobs, not just debt relief, if they want graduates to stay.