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FINISHING THE PUZZLE
FOR YEARS, CANISIUS COLLEGE HAS TRIED TO CREATE A STATE-OF-THE-ART URBAN CAMPUS, AND BY PURCHASING A BUILDING RIGHT IN THE CENTER, IT NOW HAS 'THE MISSING PIECE'

Canisius College's purchase of the BlueCross BlueShield complex on Main Street is the final and largest piece of the school's decade-long expansion.

The $18.45 million purchase, announced Tuesday, is part of an investment by the private college in the neighborhood surrounding its campus.

Canisius will transform the 237,000-square-foot building, at Main and Jefferson Avenue, into a cutting-edge science center, putting into a single building the traditional and life sciences programs now scattered throughout the campus.

College officials hope that the new science center will better position the Jesuit institution to take advantage of opportunities at the Buffalo Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and in the city's emerging life sciences industry.

"We are now in a position to control our destiny for many years in the future, and our vision of Canisius as a leading comprehensive university in the Northeast has been brought into much sharper focus," the Rev. Vincent M. Cooke, college president, said in a news conference Tuesday in the Richard E. Winter Student Center.

The BlueCross BlueShield building and parking ramp, he said, "will complete the campus we have been assembling for the past nine years."

Canisius has completed four major off-campus projects in the last three years, part of $89 million in total capital spending since 1994:

New townhouses for 325 students on the site of the former Delavan Armory, completed this year at a cost of $16.5 million.

The $9.8 million design and renovation of Lyons Hall, the former Mount St. Joseph Academy secondary school for girls, on Main Street across from Canisius, completed in 2000. The building now houses admissions and enrollment offices and has several high-tech classrooms and production labs.

The $3.6 million renovation in 2001 of the former Streng Oldsmobile building, a 44,000-square-foot structure at 2365 Main St. Now Demerly Hall, the building houses a master's program in health and human performance.

The $4 million purchase and renovation of the old St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church at Eastwood Place, rededicated in 2000 as the Carol and Carl Montante Cultural Center, which includes a high-quality performance space.

The college's investment in its classrooms, residence halls and other venues is part of its effort to attract new students, John J. Hurley, the vice president for college relations, said in an interview.

Canisius is limited in its ability to grow on campus, as the college is penned in by historic preservation districts in Hamlin Park and Parkside and by Forest Lawn. This recent buying binge is the best way the college can enhance its academic programs and attract top students, officials said.

"Students today are looking at facilities when they're looking at colleges," Hurley said.

Canisius plans in the next five years to increase its enrollment by about 10 percent from its current 3,000 undergraduates, increase the number of applications and make the college more selective, Hurley said.

The BlueCross BlueShield building gives a major boost to those efforts, officials said.

"In many respects, we have been carefully putting together an intricate jigsaw puzzle to create a state-of-the-art urban campus," Cooke said in the news conference. "But there was always this missing piece right in the center of the puzzle that we could not seem to find."

Canisius is buying the building from Uniland Partnership of Delaware, and has an agreement to move into the complex sometime between 2006 and 2009.

The 1,350-car parking ramp at the BlueCross BlueShield complex could allow the college to turn some of its on-campus parking lots into green space again, said Carl Montante, Uniland's managing director.

Montante is a Canisius graduate, a former chairman of the college's board of trustees and, with his wife, donated $1.5 million to the cultural center that bears their names.

Uniland pays about $500,000 per year in city, county and school district taxes on the property, Montante said, revenue that will be lost when the college takes over the complex.

The purchase of the BlueCross BlueShield building illustrates how far the college has come in the last two decades.

In 1980, with the closure of the Sears Roebuck store that had occupied the Main and Jefferson building for 51 years, Canisius had a chance to buy the building. The college, Cooke said, could not afford it at the time, when its endowment stood at only $2 million.

"Today, we are in a much stronger position to not only acquire the building, but also make excellent use of it," Cooke said.

The Canisius endowment now totals $43 million, according to Hurley. The college is beginning fund-raising efforts to pay for the BlueCross BlueShield purchase.

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com

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