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.

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 has attracted interest from around the country.

And that’s 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.

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, 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.

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 schools the cost of lighting the field.

And perhaps the most thriving business in Niagara Falls today, the Seneca Indian Nation’s 10-year-old Seneca Niagara Casino, largely operates as an island with few surrounding businesses appearing to benefit from its estimated 7 million yearly patrons.

Tourism was the city’s main draw until the early 1900s, when the growth of chemical plants fueled the rise of a hydropower-fueled industrial base. But industry started to lose steam in the late 1950s and ’60s.

Meanwhile, the sister city of Niagara Falls, Ontario, made itself all about tourism, putting up hotels, restaurants, museums and other attractions, even as its New York counterpart was dealing with the 1970s toxic Love Canal contamination that caused the abandonment of an entire neighborhood.

 


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