Utica, N.Y., Draws Immigrant Population

Utica, N.Y., was once an industrial hub with more than 100,000 people. Over the decades, big companies pulled out and a nearby Air Force Base closed, leaving only 60,000. Still, immigrants have found Utica an attractive place to start life in the United States.

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Utica, New York, was once an industrial hub with more than 100,000 people. But over the decades big companies pulled out, a nearby air force base closed, and now only 65,000 people are left. But as David Chanatry reports, Utica is attracting new residents.

DAVID CHANATRY reporting:

In the cramped kitchen of the Europa Restaurant, in the heart of what was once a vibrant Italian neighborhood in Utica, Miko Vellic(ph) is grilling up the house specialty, cevapi(ph), a sausage and bread dish he's come to call Bosnian hamburger. His wife is waiting on tables, while his 22-year-old daughter Sabine(ph) tends the bar.

The family has lived in Utica for eight and a half years. They left their former home in western Bosnia as war was beginning to tear apart the former Yugoslavia. Now their restaurant anchors the Bosnian community here; almost 5,000 people who arrived as they did in search of safe haven. They're the biggest group in an influx of political refugees to this tired city. Almost 40% of Utica's population is over 50, but the refugees are young. They're filling the schools and providing a needed workforce.

One of the city's largest employers is a medical products company called CONMED, and it depends on the refugees. Human Resources Director Bob O'Reilly says almost half of CONMED's 1,200 local employees are refugees.

Mr. BOB O'REILLY (Human Resources Director, CONMED Corp., Utica): The refugee population is a critical component and its part of the foundation of the company.

CHANATRY: The availability of low-skilled jobs is one big reason why refugee resettlement has worked here. Refugees have found jobs as meat cutters, greenhouse workers, and nursing home attendants. They began to pay taxes and buy goods and services. Some have saved enough to go into business for themselves.

A few blocks from the Europa Restaurant, two men from Belarus have opened a furniture showroom. Their beds and sofas come from around the world. Their store manager, Sultan Mangal(ph), comes from Afghanistan.

Mr. SULTAN MANGAL (Store manager in Utica): We have multinational store here, you know. All kinds of customers we have, but as usual, most of them Russian and Bosnian.

CHANATRY: Sultan just moved his family into a house he bought in December. Five years ago, 14 percent of Utica's houses were vacant. Now, refugees, mostly Bosnians, are buying houses for the cost of back taxes and rehabbing entire blocks.

Mr. MARK BONVILLE (Utica Urban Renewal Division, Utica): Let's take a spin over to the east side.

CHANATRY: Mark Bonville knows the housing situation better than anyone. In his job at Utica's Urban Renewal Agency, he's the guy that grants a certificate of occupancy after a home has been fixed up. Driving slowly through east Utica, Bonville points out house after house that have been put back on the city's tax rolls. He stops in front of one home with a brick facade and new vinyl siding.

Mr. BONVILLE: You've never know that the house looked the way it did before. It was a little crotchety blue house, falling apart. They just put a heck of a lot of TLC into it.

CHANATRY: The city estimates well over 500 houses have been rehabbed in this fashion, often finished with a bright coat of paint. But there are costs to Utica as well. While most of the Bosnians arrived in the mid 1990's, brought in under a federal humanitarian program, much of the bill is paid by local taxpayers. Medicaid, welfare and education costs have all gone up. Hamilton College Economics Professor Paul Hagstrom has done a fiscal analysis of refugee resettlement in the Utica area.

Mr. PAUL HAGSTROM (Professor of Economics, Hamilton College): The cost of bringing refugees into our area is substantial. The gamble is that you're also having long term benefits.

CHANATRY: Hagstrom says it takes about twelve years for that gamble to pay off. At that point, each family's contribution to the local economy outweighs the upfront costs. Utica is now in the black, but it needs to keep the refugees who are here. Already some families are moving.

Nesera Giveravic(ph), one of the first of the Utica Bosnians, now lives in the suburbs.

Mr. NESERA GIVERAVIC: I don't buy the house there, I buy the neighborhood. I buy the better schools for my kids.

CHANATRY: That's a sentiment all too familiar to city officials. Utica lacks the high skill jobs that might hold onto the next generation. And the city faces other challenges; it's now receiving refugees from Africa and Southeast Asia who are often illiterate in their own languages, and who require more time and assistance to join the mainstream and contribute to Utica's economic life.

For NPR News, I'm David Chanatry, in Utica, New York.

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