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The 2010 census brought some bad news for Niagara Falls, New York. Once one of the biggest cities in the Northeast, it has lost more than half its population since the 1950s. As Daniel Robison reports, Niagara Falls is now at risk of losing its city status, as well as million of dollars in federal aid.
DANIEL ROBISON, BYLINE: Niagara Falls residents shuffle into a town hall meeting. It's standing-room only in this small space.
SETH PICCIRILLO: How's everybody doing? Can you hear me in the back?
ROBISON: As the city's new head of Community Development, 29-year-old Seth Piccirillo has the job of reversing 60 years of population loss. Tonight, he's gathered this crowd to present his big idea: convincing people, like Nissa Morin, to make Niagara Falls home. She is a college graduate from upstate who wants to move to a city despite her sizeable student debt.
NISSA MORIN: Well, someone who is going to give me a little money for my loans, they're going to win.
ROBISON: Morin plans to apply to Piccirillo's new program that promises to pay $7,000 toward her student debt if she agrees to live in downtown Niagara Falls for two years.
MORIN: Cities don't usually open their doors and just say, come in and do your thing. We'll support you and help you however we can, just, you know, give us your time. If a city is going to do that, I - sounds like a place I want to live.
ROBISON: Piccirillo tells his town hall audience his plan has already generated a buzz among young people across the country.
PICCIRILLO: We've gotten over 400 emails or calls from interested applicants. And we've spent $85.
ROBISON: Yet there's only enough money to accept 20 people into the program. Still, Niagara Falls desperately needs these new residents to keep the city a city. Tom Lowe is an urban researcher with Niagara University.
TOM LOWE: We're just over 50,000 people. And if we fall below 50,000, we lose all sorts of federal funding. We lose the federal designation as a city. We'll become the town of Niagara Falls. And I don't think anyone wants to see that.
ROBISON: That would mean the loss of $6 million a year from Housing and Urban Development. That would seriously jeopardize efforts to stabilize neighborhoods gutted by decades of decline. Funds to aid first-time homebuyers would dry up, as would dollars to rehab aging buildings and bulldoze others. These federal programs exist to keep shrinking cities afloat, Lowe says. And Niagara Falls has grown dependent on them.
LOWE: Losing funding, it would be crippling. Layoffs would be astronomical. It'd be a tough go of it.
ROBISON: Niagara Falls already has trouble meeting its basic needs, like paying police and fire, and maintaining an infrastructure once supported by twice as many people. Over the past half century, its tax base has withered along with its manufacturing economy. While the city shrinks, its problems have grown with increases in poverty, crime and gang activity.
COUNCILMEMBER GLENN CHOOLOKIAN: I think other cities are laughing at us.
ROBISON: Glenn Choolokian is a former business owner and current councilman. The city's limited funds should bolster public safety and pave roads now, he says. Existing residents and businesses will be more likely to stay, keeping population steady. Choolokian says paying new residents to stay for two years is an insult to those who have stuck it out.
CHOOLOKIAN: Where do you see that a city is dying for population that bad that you're going to pay for college kids' tuition? Every 20 you pay for, you have hundreds and hundreds leaving Niagara Falls. Just look at the population. There's no development here. There's no jobs.
ROBISON: But jobs will follow new residents and talent, says Community Development head Seth Piccirillo. Twenty new college-educated citizens will draw the attention of employers, he argues, while improving the city's economy at the same time.
PICCIRILLO: That's 20 more dinners, 20 more cups of coffee, 20 more trips to the dry cleaners. Are we doing anything else to bring 20 people in? No.
ROBISON: Piccirillo admits his program is too small by itself to fix the city's problems. But he says it's the best Niagara Falls officials can afford, and they have to try something. Right now, Niagara Falls has a population of 50,100 - just 100 people away from losing its designation as a U.S. city. For NPR News, I'm Daniel Robison in Buffalo, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.