Tonawanda News — City community development officials held a meeting Tuesday night on the housing incentive program aimed to draw young people to live in downtown Niagara Falls to give residents more information and answer any questions.
The plan will offer to pay up to $7,000 in student loans to recent graduates and graduate students who rent market-rate apartments or buy homes in a designated area that includes Third Street, Fourth Street and Park Place.
The opportunity for students to have part of their debt paid has spurred interest from around the country, Seth Piccirillo, the director of community development, said during his opening remarks.
“People are looking at Niagara Falls as a living destination when before June, maybe they weren’t,” he said.
The program will be funded with $200,000 from the Niagara Falls Urban Renewal Agency. The money will be available for 20 applicants who will be reimbursed $3,500 a year for up to two years.
Community development has started branding efforts, renaming the program Live NF. A website is being built, a new logo was revealed at the meeting and efforts are being made to use social media to promote the program.
Piccirillo said that he understands that the idea seems unconventional but all innovative programs that have been successful in community development were seen that way before they became successes.
“We need a strategy to attract new residents and retain current residents because what we’ve been doing for five decades just isn’t working,” he explained.
Community development will grant a 30-day public comment period to allow residents to give their input on the applications. Drafts of the applications were available at the meeting for residents to review.
“We don’t want to get any further down this road without getting the full public comment,” Piccirillo said.
Caitlin Fulle, 24, graduated from Niagara University in 2010 with a degree in education and will be finishing her master’s degree this year. She intends to apply to the program and hopes to buy a house in the designated area. Fulle grew up in a victorian-style house in Buffalo’s Elmwood Village neighborhood and hopes to buy a house like the one where she was raised.
“I really like that older feel,” Fulle said. “I like home renovating too, so I wouldn’t mind fixing up a house either.”
Fulle said that she is concerned about crime in the area but that the positives — such as being within walking distance of the Falls — outweigh the negatives. She and her friends often use Hyde Park for recreational activities and hike the gorge.
“We go down to the Falls all the time anyway so it’s nice to kind of be close to that,” she said.
Lou Rizzo, a Niagara Falls resident and landlord, said that he likes the idea and is happy that the city is taking innovative measures to curb population loss, but that he worries that the program’s budget will balloon out of control.
“What mechanism do they have in place that this is going to end at $200,000?” Rizzo asked.
City Council Chairman Sam Fruscione raised concerns about the program during the urban renewal board meeting where the funding was approved. Fruscione said at Tuesday night’s public meeting that he still has some concerns — mainly that he would like to see the program limited to homeowners — but that he will support the housing incentive program.
“I prefer to do homesteading versus rental,” he said.
Fruscione said that he respects Piccirillo’s plan.
“I wish him the best and that’s all I can say about it,” he said. “And that’s why I’m here, to learn his plan.”
Mayor Paul Dyster attended a Western New York Regional Economic Development Council meeting earlier in the day. Community development has already applied for $700,000 in grants from the state for housing rehabilitation and those grants received a 20 out of 20 rating at the meeting, he said.
“It appears as though (the grants) are heading for approval as one of their top priority projects within the region,” Dyster said.
He is not involved in the rating process.
Dyster said that moving college graduates into the city is an important part of luring businesses to Niagara Falls.
“We need to be certain that we are developing the knowledge workforce here that employers like to see,” Dyster said. “A place that is losing college graduates is not an attractive place to locate a company.”