Players run through a drill during a University of Maine football practice last year. On Wednesday, the school announced it has received a $90 million gift from the Harold Alfond Foundation to upgrade athletic facilities. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

University of Maine officials said Wednesday that a $90 million gift targeted for athletics from the Harold Alfond Foundation will create a transformational change for athletic facilities and the school’s ability to draw and keep students at its Orono campus.

“For us to be pushing forward in a time when so many universities are pulling back is really being noted across the country,” said Ken Ralph, UMaine’s athletic director. “It’s been a very good day here.”

The Alfond Foundation, named for philanthropist Harold Alfond, who founded the Dexter Shoe Company and died in 2007, has a 70-year history of supporting education and, specifically, athletics in Maine. Athletic facilities named for Alfond are found on six college campuses in Maine, including UMaine’s iconic ice hockey facility, opened in 1977, and its football stadium.

The gift announced Wednesday is the largest single contribution for athletics at a public college in New England and is among the largest gifts ever nationwide, according the university. It will be distributed over a 10-year period and is earmarked for construction of new facilities, upgrades to existing facilities, advancing gender equity in Maine’s varsity athletic program, improving recreational and intramural opportunities for all students, and turning the Orono campus into a destination for high school state championships and other community events.

“When student-athletes choose Maine, it’s not because of the facilities now,” said women’s basketball coach Amy Vachon. “It’s because of our people and our campus community. Now, to be able to add on that other piece where sometimes we lose that battle, will be so exciting. Never mind how amazing this is for the whole state.”

University of Maine athletic director Ken Ralph will provide details in coming weeks of the school’s master plan for upgrading athletic facilities. University of Maine photo

Ralph said the entirety of the Alfond Foundation gift will go toward facility improvements, not annual operating costs for the athletic department. It will be the massive cornerstone to a planned $110 million investment in athletic facilities on the Orono campus. The additional $20 million will be raised, again over a 10-year period, through private donations.

Details of the master plan will be announced soon, Ralph said.

“In the next couple of weeks, when I get permission and final approval, we’ll do a reveal of the whole master plan,” Ralph said. “What I can say now is that all 17 sports will see an upgrade.”

Ralph would not share specifics, but he, UMaine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy and University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy each emphasized the gift will be used to dramatically improve practice fields, office space and game facilities for women’s athletics.

“Just knowing that the Alfond Foundation wanted to give to our university and that they’re giving to our athletic department and specifically to our female student athletes is incredible,” said Vachon, a 2000 graduate of UMaine.”We’ve talked about the facilities and renovations needed for a long time and it always seemed to be a need and this gift makes it seem like it could be a reality. It’s just amazing. There’s no other word to describe it.”

In a Zoom conference with media, Malloy said he, Ferrini-Mundy and Ralph all agree “the need to drive gender equity as part of any investment we would be making in the athletic program at the University of Maine and that (inequity) is represented, currently, in  declining facilities. And that will be addressed radically in terms of the kind of investments that will be made.”

In a separate interview, Ralph said that when he took over as Maine’s athletic director in September 2018, “I was disappointed we weren’t further along. One example I often use is our women’s soccer team plays in the outfield of our baseball field.”

Ralph also noted that the softball field isn’t playable until mid-April while right next door is the fully synthetic baseball field that can have snow plowed off to allow for games in March.

“All these little things add up to build a big thing,” Ralph said. “I really feel this is an area where Maine can be a leader nationally and this gift gives us a chance.”

Gender differences in participation, coaching salaries, and scholarships, areas where Ralph said Maine has less disparity than most universities, would need to be addressed through annual budgeting.

The athletics gift was the largest chunk of a whopping $240 million donation by the Harold Alfond Foundation to the University of Maine System.

The overall gift was the largest ever given to a New England public education system, nearly quadruple the next largest gift ($66 million to the University of Vermont in 2016). It is considered the eighth-largest gift ever made to a U.S. university, according to Chronicle of Higher Education.

“It is an incredible gift and Harold has a legacy of involvement in athletics,” Ralph said. “You see Alfond Arenas all over the state.”

Ralph said shortly after taking over as the athletic director, he, other administrators and key executives of the Alfond Foundation toured the Orono campus and came to one hard-to-ignore conclusion.

“Quire frankly our facilities are not up to the standard of a state flagship institution,” Ralph said.

Negotiations and discussions between the athletic department and its longtime benefactor toward making a historic, legacy-defining gift, had already started prior to Ralph’s arrival.

“It was already percolating when I arrived. The biggest thing for us was finding a program of upgrades and new construction that matched the vision of what the Alfond Foundation had with what we had for the growth of athletics,” Ralph said.

“The $90 million gift for athletics will take us to new heights of excellence and equity in Division I athletics,” Ferrini-Mundy said in the media conference. “We can become the state destination for high school tournaments, playoff games, academic fairs and competitions and arts events. There will be facilities on this campus that will rival any across the nation. … We anticipate drawing tens of thousands of people to the Maine’s flagship university.”


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