PRESQUE ISLE — The Maine Winter Sports Center, which must raise more than a half-million dollars in two months to continue operating, announced the first major piece of its fundraising campaign Thursday.

Mary Smith, a Presque Isle native now living in California, has given the center a $100,000 gift and offered an additional $400,000 matching grant, said Andy Shepard, president and CEO of the Maine Winter Sports Center.

The training center, with world-class biathlon facilities in Fort Kent and Presque Isle, lost its primary benefactor in late January when the Libra Foundation announced that it was ending its contributions.

The Portland-based philanthropic foundation contributed nearly $1.4 million of the center’s $1.7 million budget last year, and has contributed nearly $34 million to the training center since it opened in 1999.

The foundation typically helps start nonprofits and continues funding them until they can stand on their own. It said that time had come for the Maine Winter Sports Center.

Shepard has said the center must raise $550,000 by April 30 to continue its programs next year.

If Smith’s gift is matched, it could generate as much as $900,000, to ensure that the training center can offer its programs next year and give Shepard time to put together a long-term financial plan.

But it is only the start of the fundraising, Shepard said, and the training center will close if it cannot raise at least $450,000 on top of Smith’s $100,000 gift.

“My hope is that the pace of this picks up, and it certainly needs to because our funding runs out April 30,” Shepard said. “If we don’t have enough to move forward, we won’t be able to. And no one wants that.”

Smith, who has made other large financial gifts to institutions in the Presque Isle area, including the construction of Northern Maine Community College’s Rodney Smith Wellness Center, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Shepard said he first spoke to her a year ago, then contacted her again when the Libra Foundation announced that it was pulling its finances.

“She wants to be part of the solution,” he said. “But she wants to do it in a way that encourages people across the state to feel they’re part of the solution, too. Frankly, that’s in my best interest as well.

“This should be a number of different organizations, foundations, private donors, communities,” he said.

Shepard said the center has raised about $40,000 in addition to Smith’s gift, with many $50 and $100 donations. That money will be used to help match Smith’s $400,000 grant.

“Those contributions mean a lot to me,” Shepard said. “Those are coming from people who, in a lot of cases, don’t have that kind of money. We’ve gotten some larger gifts as well. And it will take all of that to make this happen.”

The Maine Winter Sports Center is recognized as one of the nation’s top biathlon training centers and facilities. Of the 10 members of the U.S. Biathlon team that competed in this month’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, five trained at the center, including Russell Currier of Stockholm, Maine’s only competitor in the games.

From Friday through March 7, the center will host the IBU Biathlon Youth/Junior World Championships at its Nordic Heritage Ski Center in Presque Isle.

Seth Hubbard, the training center’s biathlon coach, said he hopes Smith’s gift will spur others, knowing that every dollar they donate will be matched.

“I think this is extremely encouraging news,” he said. “I hope it will speed up the fundraising. I think it’s also indicative that the support is out there, that we were able to locate it in such a short time. It gives you a little comfort, knowing the support is there.”

Shepard said he will keep looking for more support.

“There really isn’t any time for anyone to sit on the sidelines for this one,” he said. “If there are people out there who value what we do, now is the time to step up.”

Mike Lowe can be reached at 791-6422 or at:

mlowe@pressherald.com

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