Shrinking city syndrome is chronic, painful and basically uncurable. Once a city starts losing its population—usually because it relied on an industry now in decline (see Detroit)—there is no proven strategy for stopping the bleeding.
But there are some interesting unproven strategies. Case in point: Niagara Falls, New York, a city that just nailed down five more citizens by agreeing to pay back (some of) their student loans.
Niagara Falls is a poster child for population loss. The city had more than 100,000 people in 1950. Now they’re struggling to keep above 50,000, a number which carries more than just symbolic consequences: It’s the cut-off for HUD entitlement funding. “That’s a dollar loss right off the bat,” Niagara Falls director of community development Seth Piccirillo says. It means less money for everything from home repairs to police. But Piccirillo is worried about the private sector, too: “When was the last time an employer said, ‘I want to put 500 jobs in a shrinking city’? It doesn’t happen.”
A solution they came up with, literally on the back of a napkin, is called Live NF. It will reimburse up to $3,492 a year of your student loans for two years—if you move to downtown Niagara Falls. They had 42 applicants, and have just announced their first five winners, who range from an artist from Buffalo to a web designer with a master’s in bible studies.
The Niagara Gazette reports that winner Bobbie Thoman is already looking into setting up a community garden. “Anything you can do to get involved in the community, it makes you, I feel like, live a fuller life,” Thoman said.
The program has a budget for 15 more "urban pioneers" and continues to accept applicants. Even though 20 more residents will be a drop in the bucket, every drop counts, according to Piccirillo. “If we’re not spending at least part of our day thinking about how to stabilize and grow our population, we’re not doing our jobs,” he says.
Piccirillo has been contacted by five other cities that wanted to learn more about the project, but right now, it’s too early to give advice. “We’re still writing the book,” he says.