July 7, 2012

Economic development by paying down (individual) debt

Long long ago I won an Empire State Scholarship, but couldn't accept the money that came with it because I went to college in another state - Pennsylvania. In the long run I did something more important to New York than going to college there, deciding to live here. (In the 20 years since I graduated from college I've lived in New York State for 18.)

Lately I've also been wondering about New York's bloated and sometimes corrupt economic development infrastructure. Rochester reporter Rachel Barnhart has noted research on property tax abatements not really working, and points to a Syracuse Post-Standard story about the miserable scheme that was supposed to turn Carousel Mall into DestiNY.

Today I read about a different approach to supporting education and economic development, in Niagara Falls:

Remember how towns in need of a shot of youthful energy were dangling a tasty carrot of student loan payoffs in front of said young people to try and convince them to move there? It seems Niagara Falls' plan in that vein is doing quite well for itself, with a new report that young people from around the country are "vying for the chance to live in downtown Niagara Falls."

As the Buffalo News puts it for those unfamiliar with the plan, "No, that's not a typo." It's all part of the city's scheme to pay off up to $3,500 for two years in student loans for those accepted into the program. More than 200 people from as far away as Hawaii have contacted the city about renting or buying a home in the city since news of the program spread last month.

This is pretty radical, though they're only doing it for 20 people.

I have mixed feelings about this. The student loan business has turned into a racket over the last few decades, fueled by rising demand for credentials. Organizations, both not-for-profit and for-profits, have been chasing student loan dollars in ways that constantly make me wonder what students - and taxpayers subsidizing those loans - are actually getting for the money. An expensive education can certainly be worthwhile, but it's not always the right answer. (I marvel at Angelika's college education, which cost €250 a semester, mostly for a bus pass. There are other probably better models.)

It's also hard to track the impact of this, though the good publicity Niagara Falls is getting as a pioneer probably helps overall. I also have persisting doubts about the "chase the 'Creative Class'" approach that seems to have become a standard part of too many cities' economic development toolbox. (They're the most mobile people, so getting them to come and getting them to stay are two different questions, the second much more difficult.)

I think, though, that we're going to see more of this. It's definitely something to watch. At the very least, it's an interesting idea for making lemons into lemonade.

Posted by simon at July 7, 2012 12:03 PM in ,
Note on photos