WATERVILLE — The Harold Alfond Foundation announced Wednesday it is giving a $5.3 million grant to Thomas College for a new business institute at the school, launching initiatives such as an internship program and training sessions and workshops for both students and local businesspeople.

The investment, which will be used to create the Harold Alfond Institute for Business Innovation, will help Thomas College “contribute to the renaissance of the greater Waterville region,” said President Laurie Lachance.

Lachance said she has seen the rebirth of Lewiston and Bangor and coastal communities in Maine.

“I want to leave you with this thought: It is our turn, central Maine. It’s time,” she said. “The foundation has invested in us. They believe in us. They know we can do this. We need to believe we can do this.”

The founders of the Alfond Foundation, which is named after Dexter Shoe company founder Harold Alfond, “understood that institutions of higher learning could lead a community,” said Greg Powell, chairman of the Alfond Foundation.

While globalization and technology changed the economic landscape of what was once a hub for manufacturing, “in recent years, this community and the foundation have seen and felt the opportunity to meet the challenges of change by changing,” Powell said.

Already, the foundation has a partnership with CGI, previously known as Collaborative Consulting, and others to create a student debt relief program with $5.5 million in startup funding, as well as $20 million in downtown Waterville revitalization in partnership with Colby College in Waterville.

Powell said Thomas College is “the perfect partner to help in economic growth” because of its strong leadership, its investment in educating central Maine’s workforce and its ability to collaborate with others.

“Thomas grads are so impressive that 20 percent of the workforce of the Harold Alfond Foundation is constituted of Thomas College grads,” he said. “At a time when Maine businesses require talent, Thomas is the region’s top educator of business students.”

Those who graduate from the college also tend to contribute to the area. More than 75 percent of graduates stay in Maine, and more than half of those graduates stay in central Maine.

Reilly Kons, 21, of Topsham, said the revitalization of Waterville is part of what’s inspired him to stay in the area. Kons is a senior studying marketing management who is interning at CGI and will join GHM Insurance Agency as an account executive in June.

“If you were going to tell me I was going to start my career in Waterville, I would’ve thought that something went wrong,” Kons said. “I’ve come to really love the area.”

The Institute for Business Innovation “envisions a new role for Thomas to engage with the business community,” Powell said, and establish a “pipeline of talent” in the area.

Powell also encouraged business leaders to become involved with the institute, saying that Harold Alfond “loved teamwork and he loved action, and he liked to say, ‘Don’t tell me. Show me.'”

The $5.3 million grant, which covers the total cost of the institute, will allow the college to establish a paid internship program with local business partners such as the Central Maine Growth Council, Greenlight Maine, and Adam Burk and Co. It also will organize programming for undergraduates and graduates in entrepreneurship and innovation, as well as a number of certification programs and workshops for businesspeople.

Mike Duguay, a former director at Summit Natural Gas, will lead the institute as its executive director.

“This is a very special place, a hidden treasure that has the potential to dramatically change the way” that higher education is delivered in the area, said Duguay, a native of Fairfield and one of the founders of the original Kennebec Valley Entrepreneurial Network.

The institute is already in the midst of its first one-week intensive class on entrepreneurship, which has 19 students, and plans to partner with organizations in the community to foster business locally. For example, the season finale of Greenlight Maine, a show where entrepreneurs present their ideas with the hopes of winning a cash prize to fund it, will be filmed live at the college on June 6.

Megan Ruby, 19, of New Gloucester, is one of the students in the intensive one-week course on entrepreneurship. As someone working with a group of students and Duguay to develop a fitness product, Ruby said the course has been very helpful.

While it’s only the third day, the students already have gone through scenarios with three different prototypes, envisioning the different target markets.

“It’s a good opportunity to sit down for a week and think,” Ruby said. She was stuck in a rut with her own product, trying to figure out where to go with it, and the course has provided a “good chance to see it from a different perspective.”

The institute also will house the Alfond Fellows, who will “serve in the spirit of a group who might have been called town fathers or mothers,” said Chris Gaunce, vice president of Central Maine Motors and chairman of the board of directors for the Central Maine Growth Council.

The fellows will meet one-on-one with local businesspeople, students and entrepreneurs to help them in different areas of business, said Mikaela Ziobro, director of strategic initiatives at Thomas College. The mentoring program is live now, and those who would like to participate can contact the institute and Duguay, who will help them identify the issues and match them to a mentor with an appropriate skill set, Ziobro said.

Among the mentors are Bill Mitchell, who runs GHM Insurance; Kathy Corey, vice president of merchandising and personnel at Day’s Jewelers; and Charlie Gaunce, owner of Central Maine Motors.

Lachance said the foundation approached the college about two and a half years ago and asked the college to devise an idea that would grow both the school and the area, and it would fund it.

After traveling the country to research what other business schools were doing and presenting ideas to a study group to get feedback, the college decided on the institute.

“Thomas has never been in a better position to work as an economic catalyst,” said Conrad Ayotte, co-chairman of the board of trustees at Thomas College.

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @madelinestamour