Niagara Falls takes broad approach to draw people

By Carolyn Thompson

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Aug. 5 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this April 21, 2005 file photo, a group of tourists brave opening day on the bow of the Maid of the Mist at the base of the Horseshoe Falls, from Niagara Falls, N.Y.

David Duprey, File, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. — In recent years, Niagara Falls has thrown open its doors to casino gambling, gay weddings and a tightrope walk that, until laws were relaxed, would have meant arrest.

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

On the drawing board now is a plan to entice young people to move in by paying down their student loans.

After the city's old strategy of industry over tourism flopped amid the decline of Rust Belt manufacturing and the disastrous Love Canal, a new 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 below 50,000.

"Less people means less attention in the government's eyes. ... You need people in your neighborhoods," said Community Development Director Seth Piccirillo.

The latest idea is to cover two years' worth of student loan payments for recent college graduates who agree to live in a targeted neighborhood. Piccirillo said the tuition program will start small, with about 20 people in the first round, but it has attracted interest from around the country.

And that's really the point, Dyster said, of using Niagara Falls as an incubator for new ideas.

"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. "When you do it in Niagara Falls, it's the difference between speaking in a conversational voice and talking through a megaphone."

The overarching goal is to get people to set up shop here, or at least stick around long enough to spend money.

So, last July when it became legal for same-sex couples to wed in New York state, Niagara Falls organized an attention-grabbing group wedding with hopes of reviving its onetime reputation as "the honeymoon capital" for same-sex and opposite-sex couples alike.

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.

City officials say redevelopment of the Niagara Falls Airport, which was barely used until the late 2009 opening of a $31.5 million terminal, has improved accessibility. The airport went from handling 37,014 passengers in 2009 to 197,208 in 2011.

Other successes include the 2010 grand opening of a three-block cobblestone stretch, Old Falls Street, to connect the state park with a convention center and hotels and serve as a destination for festivals and shows. Niagara County Community College, meanwhile, plans to open a new culinary center in September after taking over part of a former mall near Niagara Falls State Park and a $22 million upscale hotel is planned in the same area.

But there's no hiding the obvious financial hardship for the city whose gateway landmark is a mothballed Shredded Wheat factory: 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. About 22 percent of people live below the poverty level, compared with about 14 percent statewide.

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