Move over Paul Dyster and Seth Piccirillo, there's a new sheriff in town. No, not in Niagara Falls,but in Harmony, Minn., where a new municipal program will pay prospective residents up to $12,000 to build new homes.
The Dyster-Piccirillo plan, unveiled to much fanfare here two years ago, pays recent college graduates stipends of $3,500 a year for two years to take up residence on the mean streets of Niagara Falls.
It apparently never occurred to the City Hall brain trust that the lack of job opportunities for college graduates here, combined with the absence of any meaningful culture or nightlife and the generally squalid condition of the immediate surroundings, would conspire to doom their little plan before it got off the ground.
But it did. After two years, the mayor and his director of community development have managed to lure just seven lost souls into their program. Their impact on the city has been negligible.
And the Associated Press, CBS, Forbes, the Huffington Post, Good Morning America, ABC, the San Francisco Chronicle, Fox News, the London Telegraph and all of the other national and international media outlets that ballyhooed the Dyster-Piccirillo plan when it was announced have gone far away.
As far as Harmony, Minn.
"In an empty, grassy lot bordered by cornfields stands a red sign: "Up to $12,000 CASH to Build in Harmony!" one news account began.
"This southeastern Minnesota city, population 1,020, wants you to live here. So much so that it will pay you $5,000 to $12,000 if you build a house."
"The younger people coming here, they don't want to live in their grandmother's house," said Steve Cremer, president of Harmony Enterprises, which manufactures trash compactors and recycling equipment. Cremer estimates that 95 percent of his employees live outside of Harmony, in cities such as St. Charles, Rushford and Rochester.
Cremer's point is a good one, and one that officials in Niagara Falls missed entirely. Most of the currently existing housing stock in our city was built between the late 19th century and the 1950s, when the city was growing. The decline began after 1960, and new single family houses built since then are rare.
In other words, they're all your grandma's houses.
Harmony's offer ranges from $5,000 to build a house worth $125,000 to $12,000 for a $250,000 home. The city boasts at least 15 lots that are "basically shovel-ready," priced around $14,000, said Christopher Skaalen, president of Harmony's First Southeast Bank.
And the home builders don't even have to be college graduates.
City officials estimate that it will take five years to make the grants back in the form of property taxes once the houses are built. In Niagara Falls, Dyster and Piccirillo made no provision for ever recovering the money handed out.
So, while Harmony, Minn., will have new construction and the jobs that go along with it, in addition to expanding the tax base of their community, Niagara Falls will have a handful of people who moved here for two years and then moved on when the money ran out.
The small minded Niagara Falls approach to what is the city's biggest challenge is emblematic of a leadership bereft of bold thinking, and a management style that dictates throwing taxpayer money at every problem that comes along without any thought about getting it back.