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UB FINALLY may be ready to take the great leap.

The leap over the campus border. The leap that takes it beyond academic exercises and into the real world. Carrying not just good intentions, but the thing it was always reluctant to bring: money.

The real world, in this case, is the slipping University Heights neighborhood around the South Campus, where many UB students live.

For years, politicians and neighborhood activists encouraged the University at Buffalo to jump in -- to, among other things, buy and rehabilitate property and make local housing loans. To do what other schools in city neighborhoods have done elsewhere across the country.

It was the conspicuously missing piece in UB's recently unveiled $100 million grand plan for the South Campus. At no point does the school roll up its sleeves, take out its wallet and dive into the surrounding neighborhood. It's all brainpower and good intentions.

UB President Bill Greiner says this may change.

Greiner said the school may throw "in the range of a couple hundred thousand dollars" toward a housing project.

"Our foundation folks are fully aware we have an interest in doing this," Greiner said last week, "and they are supportive of it."

UB's foundation, with reported assets of more than $7 million, is outside the control of the State University of New York system.

Predictably, UB isn't jumping into the deep end of the pool. Greiner said market study must be done, and bank and corporate dollars brought in.

"The foundation doesn't want to squander money on bright ideas," Greiner said. "The next step is a business plan."

Sources say there's also a "show me yours first" tap dance going on. UB wants banks and corporations to ante up before it jumps in. They want UB to take the lead.

In the end, the school needs to stop dancing and come to the punch bowl. Across the country, numerous schools -- public and private -- located in slipping neighborhoods have used their money and muscle to calm the waters.

The '90s model is Marquette University. Trustees anted up $9 million, raised another $9 million and backed a $30 million bond to buy and rehabilitate local properties for student housing.

The University of Chicago's neighborhood housing program dates from the 1950s. The University of Southern California set up a real estate corporation to build condominiums in South Central Los Angeles. The University of Illinois extracted federal grants to improve neighborhoods. In the late 1980s, Canisius College spent $1.5 million to buy and renovate 21 neighborhood houses.

UB has limited itself to neighborhood studies and the camp counselor approach: Bring everybody together and urge them to play.

The number of poor people living near the South Campus, meanwhile, nearly doubled in the last 25 years. Although still holding on, University Heights has plenty of bad landlords, shabby houses and crime.

State Supreme Court Judge Eugene Fahey is a former Common Council member from the University District.

"UB has to get down to nuts and bolts, instead of limiting themselves to academic exercises," Fahey said. "It's not enough to plan and talk about it. You have to use your resources directly."

UB, in fact, used to be part of the neighborhood. The school owned many of the houses on adjacent Winspear Avenue. Its campus police station was on the street.

Through the years, the school sold off the houses. "(Selling) seemed like a good idea at the time," said Greiner, who helped make the decision. "In retrospect, we probably shouldn't have done it."

Now, the school is thinking of getting back in. It ought to. Its halfway approach is like Evander Holyfield limiting himself to giving boxing lessons.

UB is the biggest SUNY campus and seventh-largest employer in the region. It has ties to a multimillion-dollar foundation.

Investing in the neighborhood isn't just a worthy mission for a taxpayer-supported school. It's in UB's self-interest.

Marquette got off the dime after two students were murdered on surrounding streets. University Heights is nowhere near as bad as that neighborhood was. But in recent years, two students were robbed at gunpoint in their off-campus apartment. An intruder raped and nearly beat to death a UB student in her University Heights apartment. Aside from the human damage, the horror stories make parents think twice about shipping their kids to the school.

"UB can't market itself as a top product if the neighborhood around it is going downhill," said University District Councilman Kevin J. Helfer.

There's no great financial risk. Neighborhood housing groups for years have bought, rehabilitated and sold houses at no loss or a small profit.

"We can do 20 houses a year," said Helfer, who works with local housing groups. "But with a big pool of money, we could do 100 the first year, 200 the second year. That's when you have an impact."

That's where UB can dive in. As part of that pool.

And do what it hasn't done before: put its money where its good intentions are.

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