WATERVILLE — College graduates working at Maine businesses in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics will be eligible to apply for student debt relief as part of a new statewide program offered by the Harold Alfond Foundation and administered by the Finance Authority of Maine.

Alfond Foundation Chairman Greg Powell announced the Alfond Leaders program Tuesday in the Hains building at 173 Main St. downtown, where the technology company CGI Group will move this summer and plans to bring about 200 jobs to the area in the next few years.

Colby College, a partner in the Alfond initiative, is renovating the building to the tune of $5 million and is investing about $45 million in the downtown overall as part of the city and Colby’s efforts to revitalize the downtown and bring more people living and working downtown. The Hains building will have retail uses on the first floor.

More than 100 state and local officials, as well as business leaders, FAME, CGI, Colby, Alfond Foundation and other officials packed the first floor of the Hains Building, where Powell unveiled the program Tuesday.

He said the Alfond Foundation would contribute $5.5 million toward starting the program, which would pay up to 50 percent in college loan debt — up to $60,000 — for a qualifying STEM student who commits to working in Maine for at least five years. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The program, which hopes to choose about 150 Alfond Leaders over the next three years, is designed to help Maine employers attract and retain talented workers who would be awarded grants through a competitive application process. The program is open to Maine residents or those who would become residents upon being hired by a Maine-based employer and those who are employed or who will be employed by a Maine-based employer in designated STEM occupations.

Nationally, those who graduated from college in 2016 and borrowed to finance their degrees carry an average of $37,173 in student debt, according to loan expert Mark Kantrowitz. That amount represents a 6 percent increase from 2015.

Powell said Maine faces the challenge of high student debt and meeting the state’s workforce needs; and those who have high student debt are less likely to buy homes, start a business or become entrepreneurs. In Maine, which has 1.3 million residents, outstanding student debt totals $4.8 billion, Powell said, citing some estimates that put Maine college student debt at nearly $30,000 — the seventh-highest student debt in the country. Many graduates go out of state to look for higher-paying jobs, and the workforce shortage threatens economic prosperity, he said. Adding to the challenge is the declining birth rate in Maine, a state that has the oldest population in the U.S.

The state lacks an adequate and steady supply of workers to meet the current and future needs, and it is imperative that businesses such as CGI can recruit and keep workers, Powell said.

“At the Harold Alfond Foundation, we want to help this happen by funding student debt reduction to recruit and retain STEM workers,” he said.

Powell asked for others to spread the word and help expand the effort to attract and retain skilled workers in Maine, saying the late Harold Alfond would say the Alfond Leaders is a start but the Foundation cannot do it alone — it needs partners and a bigger team.

“Use Alfond Leaders as a marketing tool to recruit and retain that incredible employee that you need,” Powell said, to a standing ovation.

‘A VERY BIG DEAL’

Colby College President David A. Greene singled out Alfond’s son, Bill, who grew up in Waterville and with whom Greene has walked the city’s streets. Bill Alfond, he said, has a powerful family connection to the area. The Alfond Foundation joined Colby last year in announcing a $20 million investment to jump-start downtown revitalization.

Greene spent several months meeting with city officials, business leaders, hospital and education officials, downtown advocates and those involved in the arts to determine what Waterville would need to help boost its economy and draw more people to live, work and spend time downtown. The group identified the need to address vacant, dilapidated buildings downtown, help draw new businesses and help existing ones to grow and thrive, help enhance arts and cultural offerings, and make the city a destination place.

Colby has bought several buildings downtown, including the Hains building; the former Elks building on Appleton Street, which was demolished to make way for parking; the former Levine’s building at 9 Main St., which also was razed, and where Colby plans to build a 42-room boutique hotel with a restaurant; and the former Waterville Hardware building across the street.

Colby plans to build a $25 million student residential complex on the northeast part of The Concourse. About 200 students, as well as staff and faculty members, will live in the building and be part of a special civic engagement program. The first floor will include retail uses and will house a glassed-in forum space that may be used by the public for meetings.

Greene, city and state officials worked together to draw Collaborative Consulting, which CGI later purchased, to Waterville. CGI is the fifth-largest independent information technology and business process services firm in the world. It has an annual revenue in excess of $10 billion and an order backlog exceeding $20 billion.

“When they made a commitment to stay here in Waterville, it was a very big deal for us,” Greene said of CGI.

He said that two years from now, Waterville is going to feel different and will be alive and energized.

“We’re excited to be able to support this and we are thrilled we have been in partnership with the Harold Alfond Foundation to make this happen,” Greene said. “There is no better partner in the world than the Harold Alfond Foundation.”

Greene several years ago led an effort to revitalize areas in Chicago’s South Side when he was executive vice president at the University of Chicago. Like the current Waterville downtown revitalization effort, it centered on economic development.

Bruce Wagner, chief executive officer of FAME, said the Alfond Leaders program will have an immediate and long-term effect in the state in helping to secure good-paying jobs for residents.

“We are honored to help implement this program,” he said.

Melissa Smith, chief executive officer of WEX and chairman of the Alfond Leaders Advisory Committee, said she was honored to be part of the effort. The committee will help guide the selection of Alfond Leaders to help fill specific needs in occupations in short supply of qualified professionals and help meet needs in certain places in Maine. Applicants from the U.S. and abroad will be recruited; Maine residents are eligible and encouraged to apply.

Ned Hammond, CGI’s senior vice president, who is a central Maine native, thanked all involved and said special thanks go to Powell and the Alfond Foundation.

“The work you are doing here is amazing, and it’s a great jump-start for us,” he said.

EXPANDING OPPORTUNITY

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, spoke at the event, as did Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-2nd District, who grew up in Waterville. Poliquin also called for federal officials to partner in the effort as well by adjusting the tax code so employer contributions toward student loan debt could be a tax deduction and it would be a “non-income event” for the recipient.

U.S. Sen. Angus King, who was unable to attend, spoke in a recorded video, as did Gov. Paul LePage, a former Waterville mayor, who praised the Harold Alfond Foundation for helping Maine to grow. LePage said in his recorded remarks that the Alfond Leaders program is critical for Maine’s future economy. He welcomed CGI and said it is great to see Waterville’s “renaissance” begin.

“Thank you and the Harold Alfond Foundation. Keep up the great work,” LePage said, to applause.

Those representing the LePage administration Tuesday included John Butera, senior policy advisor, who helped attract Collaborative Consulting to the city.

After the speeches, Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro said the Alfond Leaders program effort proves the importance of collaboration and partnerships that are now happening in the city.

“The importance of give-and-take between the government, business and nonprofit communities is showing through in a real economic activity, and we should all be incredibly thankful for that,” he said.

In the audience Tuesday were Colby sophomores Austin Nantkes, 19, of Lincoln, and Rob Durst, 21, of Dublin, California. Both won 2017 paid summer internships with CGI after competing in a contest as part of Colby’s monthlong Jan Plan Program.

Working with representatives of CGI, Nantkes and Durst worked on a project in which they were asked to develop a way for businesses and colleges to obtain valid, up-to-date college transcripts online in a quick, secure manner. Students also would have access to their own transcripts. Nantkes, a computer science major at Colby, said getting transcripts now typically takes four to eight days.

“We used block-chain technology to create a secure and quick way to access transcripts,” Nantkes said.

He and Durst, who is majoring in computer science and mathematics, worked on opposing teams, and each had a partner. They had to come up with an idea and a plan, and they will design and implement their plans as part of their summer internships at CGI, which ended up granting internships to both teams.

Nantkes said he thinks the Alfond Leaders program will help Waterville and Maine in general. He has been following Colby’s efforts to help revitalize the city’s downtown and said he thinks it will be great for Waterville.

“Personally, I wish this could happen to my town of Lincoln,” he said. “We just had a mill shut down and we’re in the same boat.”

Durst also praised revitalization efforts. He said it is difficult for Colby students to go downtown from the campus on Mayflower Hill and having a student residential complex downtown will help students and community members interact more. Having CGI across the street from the dormitory also will be a plus, he said. The significance of Tuesday’s announcement about Alfond Leaders and the collaboration occurring to make things happen is not lost on Durst.

“Having the opportunity to work for CGI is not just a cool tech internship but an opportunity to really be part of something bigger,” he said.

Asked if he would consider working in Maine after he graduates from Colby, Durst said that before he came to Maine from California, he did not think he would stay in Maine after he completed his studies.

“But I think it’s definitely more of an opportunity or possibility, with the Alfond Leaders program, or at least a consideration,” he said.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

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