NIAGARA FALLS, NEW YORK — Bobbie Thoman strides on stage, grabs the mic and launches into a five-minute spiel about why the citizens of this beleaguered city should care about composting.
“I just don’t understand why we throw so much away in this country,” the gregarious 25-year-old says to the 60 or so residents who have gathered in the ballroom of a hotel in town to pitch community improvement projects. That her idea to modernize this former honeymoon destination falls flat doesn’t matter.
She’s young, she’s eager and she’s exactly the type of person city officials want to attract to the city.
And they’re enticing them with an unusual proposal: The city will pay off $7,000 of recent graduates’ student loans over two years if they agree to live in a neighborhood near shabby Main Street.
Attracting young people is critical for Niagara Falls, which hovers precariously close to the 50,000 population mark – the dividing line between city and town, and more importantly, between having and losing badly needed federal funding.
Seth Piccirillo, 32, the city’s community development director and Niagara Falls native, hit on the idea of repaying student loans after seeing headline after headline about how debt is dragging young people down. He knew he needed to address the city’s population loss – about 10 percent every 10 years – and the program is “basically putting together those two issues and trying to create a small solution,” he said during an interview at the city’s new conference center, part of an effort to bring life into a downtown dotted with ugly, mid-century buildings.
Small is the operative word – there are currently just five participants – and funding, which currently comes from the city’s Urban Renewal Agency, established to rehabilitate blighted neighborhoods, is limited. But it has brought people who would never have considered moving to Niagara Falls into the area, Thoman among them.
“I would’ve never thought, ‘Oh, I should go live in Niagara Falls,'” she said the day after her impassioned composting pitch, at her apartment across from the city’s aquarium, whose parking lot sits mostly empty on a Friday morning.
But with $40,000 in student debt, which paid for a bachelors degree in political science from the State University of New York at Buffalo and an associates degree from Colorado Mountain College before that, the idea became a reality.
Whether she and the other program participants actually remain in the city after the two years are up – officials’ ultimate goal – is another matter.
“I absolutely want to,” Thoman, who heard about the program during a meeting at the mayor’s office while she was doing an internship in the area, said. “It’s just a matter of finding a job in the area that’ll let me stay.”
Meager Job Prospects
That’s the catch – Niagara Falls doesn’t exactly have a bustling employment scene. The honeymooners who used to flock here to gaze upon the waterfall are gone as are the power and manufacturing jobs that used to keep the area bustling. Hotels flash vacant signs, restaurants sit empty and Main Street has as many boarded windows as thriving businesses. The population has declined by half since it peaked above 102,000 in the 1960s, and unemployment, although improving, hovered near 10 percent during the recession. Average weekly wages come in around $750, far below the national $1,027 figure. The Seneca casino – the only place around with a packed parking lot – has brought in some jobs, as has the two-year old Culinary Institute, but most of the student loan repayment program participants work outside of the city because they’ve struggled to find employment locally.
Thoman, who is currently studying for her masters degree in U.S.-Canada relations through a joint University at Buffalo/Brock University program, works at a coffee shop half an hour away. Kenneth Lambert, Jr., one of her classmates and another participant in the loan repayment program, held down three part-time jobs over the summer, including one at an outlet mall, to make ends meet. Jamie Fairfield, another participant with both bachelors and masters degrees in criminal justice from Niagara University, currently works at a Burlington Coat Factory in the neighboring town of Cheektowaga.
Fairfield, who also owes about $40,000, would like to stay in the city, but, she said, “It all depends on where I am [when the program ends.]”
Jamie Fairfield stands on the street outside the modest house she rents near Main Street. Fairfield owes about $40,000. (Geneva Sands/Fusion)
Lambert, who earned a degree in international relations from Niagara University and has about $60,000 in loans, appreciates what the program has done for him but doesn’t see much opportunity to remain long-term.
“I don’t see a lot of job prospects for me here and that’s something I find very frustrating,” he said, standing on the front porch of the modest studio apartment he rents for less than $400 per month.
Lambert is also weighed down by a sense that he’s done “everything people wanted me to in terms of school” and yet he can’t seem to get ahead, even with the modest rent payments and the money from Niagara Falls. There’s little money for things like car repairs. Fun extras, such as trips to visit friends, are largely out of the question.
“I’d like a job to be able to pay off my student loans and I want to work,” he said. “I mean, I don’t want to be like my grandma who just paid the last student loan payment for my uncle. She’s 70. She shouldn’t be making a student loan payment. I don’t want to be that person.”
Piccirillo, the city development director, acknowledges the challenges, but says the program has been a success partially because it has spawned a larger “Live NF” city rebranding campaign (the community gathering where Thoman pitched a compost venture is part of Live NF).
“I think for something that was just an idea on paper just a few short years ago,” he said, “it’s working and it’s accomplishing the type of personality change for our city that we’re hoping for.”
Beyond Niagara Falls
It’s difficult to assess just how much impact the Niagara Falls program will have and it’s not something Piccirillo envisions continuing with government funding long-term. He’d like to partner with private foundations, perhaps, and if the population rebounds, it may not be necessary at all. But he urges other cities grappling with population loss to consider loan repayment.
For such a national issue, loan repayment is a relatively novel concept. Kansas is one of the only other places in the nation with a similar program. More than 70 counties in the state offer people $15,000 in student loan repayment over five years if they move into rural so-called “opportunity zones.”
Dan Lara, a spokesman for the Kansas Department of Commerce, estimates that about 90 percent of the 1,500 or so applications the state has received have been approved.
As in Niagara Falls, Lara acknowledged, “employment is always the challenge.”
While such loan repayment programs are clearly no silver bullet, Zakiya Smith, director of Strategy at the higher education-focused Lumina Foundation and a former White House education advisor, thinks they make sense from an economic development perspective, particularly if a company can fund them on a meaningful scale.
While the places that are “strapped for people have also been strapped for cash,” she said, “this is something that I think would be perfect for employers.”
Detroit automakers, she offered, could entice young workers by including loan repayment as a perk. Oil companies could do the same in North Dakota, she added.
For Piccirillo, “This is the starting gun of this rebranding locally.”
And it’s a shot people like Thoman, Fairfield and Lambert are grateful exists.
“I feel like this is the only program,” Lambert said, “that’s really recognized…my skills and education and said, ‘I’m going to give you a chance and an opportunity to repay some of your student debt,’ and I’m very thankful for that opportunity…I kind of have a newfound pride about the city.”