Tonawanda News

April 7, 2013

City selects first of student loan payback recipients

By Justin Sondel
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Bobbie Thoman wants a chance to be part of the revitalization of Niagara Falls.

Thoman, 23, is one of five awardees picked to be the first participants in Live NF, a program that pays up to $7,000 in student loans for recent college graduates who move into a targeted area in downtown Niagara Falls. She will soon be moving from the Town of Lockport, where she grew up, into the city.

“I just think that there is so much potential in the area,” she said.

The Live NF program, which is run out of the city’s Community Development department, will pay 20 recent graduates to live in the neighborhood surrounding the corner of Main Street and Park Place and will cost the city $200,000. It is aimed at creating a community of young professionals that will help to stabilize the city’s population and make downtown a more attractive place to live for a new generation of taxpayers.

Thoman, who recently graduated from the University at Buffalo with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science, said she is excited by the prospect of working with other recent college graduates to tackle the many issues that the city faces and foster a sense of community in the Cataract City.

“People want things to get better and I want to be part of that,” she said.

The stipend that will help her repay her loans was definitely a factor in her decision to apply for the program.

“It’s a great thing,” Thoman said. “Who doesn’t want their loans paid back?”

But she said the opportunity to be part of a possible turnaround for the city was more important to her.

“We always have that question. Why is everyone going to Canada, Clifton Hill?,” Thoman said. “So to be part of the group that brings (business) here, that’s what I’m excited to do.”

Thoman will begin pursuing a master’s degree in Canadian Studies, a new program run jointly by the University at Buffalo and Brock University in Ontario, Canada, this fall.

Thoman said she is excited to collaborate with fellow participants in the program and has already started to explore the idea of establishing a community garden in the designated area.

“Anything you can do to get involved in the community, it makes you, I feel like, live a fuller life,” Thoman said.

The awardees, chosen from 42 applicants from around the country, are the first of the 20 applicants who will ultimately be picked by the independent review board selected by community development.

Seth Piccirillo, the director of the city’s Community Development department, said that choosing the first awardees is a “major milestone” for the project. The volunteer panel will continue to accept applications as they work to narrow down candidates for the remaining 15 spots. The intention was not to fill all the spots at once.

“We had enough applicants that we could have (filled all the spots at once), but we know what we are looking for,” Piccirillo said.

Community Development will be able to increase the amount of time that the program lasts by announcing awardees in groups over time.

The two-year period starts the same day as the awardees’ lease begins.

“I think it makes sense to stagger too,” Piccirillo said. “That way it’s not a two-year block.”

Since introducing the plan Community Development has been able to leverage a $450,000 grant fro the state to target blight downtown and has begun to build critical mass around the corner of Third Street and Main Street — one of the programs stated goals. Niagara University’s community outreach arm ReNU Niagara established a satellite office in the same building as U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins’ offices on Park Place.

“We’ve always said that this was going to help us leverage other investments downtown,” Piccirillo said. “We feel like it’s doing that 10 months in.”

The panel performs normal due diligence tasks while vetting candidates — criminal background check, credit scores — but candidates who receive the awards need to be motivated and civic minded as well. Community Development, in cooperation with ReNU Niagara, will work to promote interactions between awardees and to offer opportunities to be engaged in the community, Piccirillo said.

“The NU space (on Park Place) is going to be like an incubator space for them to gather,” Piccirillo said. “We want to offer them options of ways to get involved.”

Critics of the plan have expressed fears that the participants in the program are only in it for the money and that most will leave after their two-year obligation is complete.

One of the goals of the program is to curb population loss by getting young people to buy into Niagara Falls. The city’s population stood at 50,106 at the 2010 census. Niagara Falls would risk losing federal funds if the population were to dip below 50,000 by the 2020 census.

Piccirillo argues that not only will the program make the Falls a more attractive place for all young people to live, but it will also continuously remind people of the issue of population loss — one of the most serious problems that the city has and continues to deal with.

“We hope that this program gets people thinking about population loss every day,” Piccirillo said. “Because we know that we think about it every day.”

Bobbie Thoman has yet to find an apartment, but plans to move to the Falls this summer. She has heard some of the criticisms of the project.

“You’ll always have naysayers,” she said. “But, I have yet to hear someone say that they want things to stay exactly as they are.”

Thoman thinks that down the road she will be able to look back at her decision to move into the city and say that she helped the Falls get back on its feet. If the city is no better off or worse off she will have the comfort of knowing that she was part of an effort to turn things around, she said.

“Hopefully this program will be successful,” Thoman said. “But, in the event that it’s not we’ll be able to look back and say we genuinely tried. What more can you ask for?”