Student Loans: Cities Offering to Pay Debt to Gain Young Residents

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Chris Harris, manager of the Kansas program, says the idea is "to provide incentives for rural counties that have lost population over past decades." Applicants can come from any state. To date, he's received 338 applications, of which 111 have been from people out of state. About 75 percent qualify for one or both of the incentives. Applications now are being received at the rate of one a day.

"Our hope was that we'd get young professionals to move," he says. "Physicians, nurses, lawyers, accountants. And that's what we have seen--health professionals, teachers, veterinarians, accountants and a surprising number of lawyers. Our hope in the beginning was to attract individuals who would have a disproportionate economic impact on a region."

By way of example, he points to Dr. Aaron Zook, who, after doing his medical residency in Denver, relocated to rural Pratt, Kan., in part because of Kansas' debt-reduction offer. Zook told KSN TV in an interview that he had student loans totaling about $200,000. "Any help I can get is going to be real nice," he said.

So well is the Kansas program working that Harris' office has received expressions of interest from Nebraska, which, he says, is interested in establishing a similar relocation incentive.

Piccirillo in Niagara Falls says he's under no illusions that his debt repayment plan will fix his city's population problem. "Some have said that this, in and of itself, won't fix the city. And that's accurate."

Houses need to be spruced up. Old buildings need to be demolished. Concerns about crime and public safety will have to be addressed. But he points to other cities that have earned a new lease on life by reviving just a few square blocks.

One in particular inspires him: the Columbia City neighborhood of southeast Seattle, which, he says, was depressed, crime-ridden and post-industrial before renovation. "They set up a young and artistic neighborhood in a small area that included yoga studios, music venues, coffee houses. If you do a search online for Seattle, you'll see you'd want to spend time in Columbia City. That's the model in our minds."

He looks forward to the day when downtown Niagara Falls would be ranked with Columbia City among the top 10 neighborhoods in the U.S.

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