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Niagara University hits fundraising goal; Collects $81.2 million to fund scholarships, major building projects

In the spring of 2007, Niagara University embarked on its biggest fundraising campaign in school history, unaware it would be asking donors for $80 million during one of the nation's worst recessions.

And as the poor economy dragged on, Niagara wondered when -- or if -- it would ever reach its goal.

"We just said, 'Let's stay with it,' " said Rev. Joseph L. Levesque, Niagara's president, "and it paid off."

Niagara on Tuesday announced it has exceeded its target of $80 million to help fund scholarships, programs and several significant building projects on the 156-year-old campus in Lewiston, including a new science center now under construction.

Levesque also had one more piece of good news: The John R. Oishei Foundation has pledged an additional $2 million for the school's science center, pushing Niagara's campaign total to $81.2 million.

"Today is an extremely important day in the history of Niagara University," Levesque said during a news conference on campus Tuesday. "Whether you have given $10 or $10 million, you are part of [this campaign], and today is our day to celebrate."

It wasn't easy getting there.

The campaign got off to a rousing start when billionaire businessman B. Thomas Golisano announced a $10 million gift to Niagara in October 2008 -- just as the stock market had started to tumble.

"At that time, I don't think we realized how severe the drop would be," said Donald P. Bielecki, Niagara's vice president for institutional advancement.

A year after the Golisano gift, fundraising hit bottom, Bielecki said.

Investment portfolios were hurting, consumer confidence was shaken and donors weren't in the giving mood.

"Maybe in a few months," donors told Niagara.

It was the most challenging fundraising campaign of Bielecki's career.

"We stayed focused," Bielecki said Tuesday, after the news conference. "We were very disciplined, and we exercised a lot of patience."

Niagara kept the dialogue with donors open.

Only in the last six to eight months has fundraising picked up, Bielecki said. He is hopeful it's a sign the U.S. economy is coming back, too, but Niagara remains cautious.

In the end, nearly 15,000 people donated to the Promise of Niagara Campaign, in amounts ranging from $1 to $10 million, Bielecki said. Niagara received 13 gifts of $1 million or more, and 255 of $25,000 or more, he added.

More than a third of the $80 million will be used for student scholarships, programs and professorships, according to the university.

The bulk of it has been used to help fund capital projects over the past six years, including Bisgrove Hall, the new home for Niagara's business administration and education programs, which opened in 2007; a new Vincentian residence, which opened in 2008; new athletic fields; the renovated Leary Theatre, which opened in 2010; and a renovated admissions and alumni center.

The campaign also will help fund the new B. Thomas Golisano Center for Intergrated Sciences, which is scheduled to open in the fall of 2013.