The Niagara Falls Plan

Remember that plan Niagara Falls officials had to try to lure young professionals to their depressing, jobless dump in upstate New York by paying off their student loans? It’s apparently a trendy new policy.

According to a piece by Mark Bennett in The Tribune-Star:

“You couldn’t pay me to live there.”

“Most Terre Hauteans have heard that, but their situation isn’t unique. Lots of small Midwestern cities struggle to attract prospective residents in the early stage of their careers. Towns located in “the Rust Belt” boomed in the early 20th century, offering solid, lifelong manufacturing jobs to workers straight out of high school. A half-century later, those cities still crave sprawling factories that employ hundreds, but in day-to-day reality survive best with a diversified mix of smaller employers with a few dozen folks on the payrolls. Thanks to energetic economic development efforts, Terre Haute has fared better than most. Still, populations in those places, including Terre Haute, peaked around 1960, as Baby Boom families grew, and have since dwindled.

How, Bennett wonders, can we lure young people back to Terre Haute? Especially when “oppportunities look far better in large, metropolitan areas”? How about if we do the Niagara Falls thing too?

The same thing could work in Indiana, a state with dozens of colleges and hundreds of thousands of students with 10s of thousands of dollars in loan debt.

The idea intrigues Leah McGrath, communications director for the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns. This year’s IACT mayors institutes have focused on economic development, “and a lot of what we discuss is retaining young professionals,” McGrath said. “It’s something we talk about a lot.”

Ok, if a lot of what you discuss is retaining young professionals maybe you should rethink this debt forgiveness plan. The reason young college graduates don’t want to move to Terre Haute, Indiana is because Terre Haute has no jobs. It has an unemployment rate over 10 percent. People aren’t avoiding the city because it’s not exciting enough; they’re avoiding it because it’s really economically risky to move there.

If the goal is really to lure young people to town the best way probably isn’t to work on debt forgiveness gimmicks; it’s economic development. Get some business there. The young people will follow soon after.

Wasn’t that how Terre Haute got big in the first place?

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer