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Golisano donates $10 million to Niagara U Gift is the largest in university's history

Billionaire businessman B. Thomas Golisano made a splash Wednesday with his first big philanthropic gift in the Buffalo Niagara region.

The Buffalo Sabres owner -- who has been throwing money around the political arena -- surprised the Western New York community with the announcement he'll give $10 million to Niagara University to help build a new campus science center.

It's the largest gift in the university's 152-year history, and one of the largest single donations any Buffalo-area college has received from an individual.

"Anything I can do to help the psyche of Western New York, I'm going to try to do," Golisano said.

But why Niagara University?

Apparently, there are several threads that led to Golisano's gift, which had been in the works since at least August 2007.

At the time, Niagara had just kicked off its $80 million fundraising campaign.

"We know a lot of people in the Rochester area, which is one of our largest alumni bases, who suggested we go to Tom," said the Rev. Joseph L. Levesque, Niagara president.

But it was actually Golisano's foundation that approached Niagara first.

Golisano -- who has given away more than $100 million since the late 1990s -- has been looking to expand his philanthropy to the Buffalo area, in light of his stake in the Sabres and Western New York, said Anne Costello, director of the Golisano Foundation. Some of his contributions to higher education in Rochester have been to smaller, private schools similar to Niagara, Costello said.

He gave $5 million to Roberts Wesleyan College in 2001, for example, and $5 million to Nazareth College in 2003. He also gave $10 million to the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2007.

"Niagara didn't approach us. We did make the call to look at them," Costello said. "It didn't mean it was going to be a fit, but it was a start."

Golisano, though, was familiar with Niagara. Some of his employees, including Dan DePofi, the Sabres chief operating officer as well as a minority owner, are Niagara alumni.

The Sabres also held a rookie camp this June at Niagara's Dwyer Arena, which would be used as a venue should the Sabres win the right to host the 2011 world junior championships.

"It's all based on the quality of the institution," Golisano said at a press conference at Niagara on Wednesday. "What matters is this is a great organization and a great institution and that's what this gift is based on."

Niagara is planning to build the two-story, 44,000-square-foot science center on a parking lot on campus for $25 million. Construction of the science center -- which will be named the B. Thomas Golisano Center for Integrated Sciences -- has not started, but it is expected to be completed by the fall of 2011.

Such a large commitment doesn't come easy.

Golisano and his people researched the project, visited the campus and scrutinized costs.

"He had a lot of very thorough and thoughtful questions about what we were doing," said Bonnie F. Rose, vice president for academic affairs at Niagara.

"Father Levesque and his crew came across with flying colors," Golisano said, "and absolutely convinced us this was a great investment."

Golisano -- accompanied by DePofi, Sabres minority owner Larry Quinn and General Manager Darcy Regier -- spoke before a large crowd outside Niagara's Castellani Art Museum, where he presented Levesque with the first of five checks for $2 million.

"Thank you," Levesque told Golisano, "a thousand times thank you."

Golisano's gift to Niagara also comes at a time he has pledged to spend up to $5 million on state elections in this campaign season, especially for those who back the kind of reforms he championed during three runs as the Independence Party candidate for governor.

In recent days, a campaign aide to Assemblyman Sam Hoyt lodged a complaint with the Erie County district attorney's office, accusing Golisano's political action committee of improper activity under the election law.

When asked about the accusations Wednesday, Golisano brushed it aside and said he wasn't going to talk about his political committee, Responsible New York.

"This has all been just a lot of political talk," Golisano said. "Why hasn't anyone presented anything?"

The billionaire also created some buzz at the press conference when he showed up with retired tennis star Monica Seles.

Golisano said the two were introduced at the New Year's Day Winter Classic game between the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins.

"We've been friends ever since," he said.

e-mail: jrey@buffnews.com

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