The Maine Winter Sports Center has raised enough funds to continue its training and state-wide recreational programs for next year, but is continuing a whirlwind fundraising campaign to raise another $200,000 that would enable it to establish an endowment program for the world-class Nordic skiing training center in Aroostook County.
“At this point we have the funding to move forward for next year; what we don’t have is the funding to move forward with the full range of programming we’ve had in the past,” said Andy Shepard, president and CEO of the Maine Winter Sports Center. “That’s why it is critical we continue to work forward with this fundraising program.
“We’re trying to set the stage for the fact that an endowment creation will be an important part of our long-term sustainability.”
If the center can raise the $200,000, it would be matched by Mary Smith, a Presque Isle native who now lives in California. Smith has donated $100,000 to the campaign, with a matching gift of up to $400,000.
Shepard said if the center can raise that money, it would provide the $500,000 to guarantee programming for next year, as well as $400,000 to start the endowment program.
That would also allow Shepard time to raise more money.
“We’re looking to create a more robust set of sponsorship opportunities and strengthen the corporate support for the Maine Winter Sports Center,” he said.
The Maine Winter Sports Center, located in Caribou with competition and training sites in Fort Kent and Presque Isle, sent six athletes to the recent Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Half of the 10-member U.S. biathlon Olympic team trained at the Maine Winter Sports Center, including Russell Currier from Stockholm, the only Maine competitor in Sochi, as well as one cross-country skier.
But days before those Olympics began, the Maine Winter Sports Center lost its primary benefactor when the Libra Foundation announced it would cease funding the center after 15 years. Libra, a Portland-based philanthropic foundation, typically provides seed money for nonprofits and funds them until they can stand on their own. It had contributed nearly $34 million to the training center since it opened in 1999, including nearly $1.4 million of the center’s $1.7 million budget last year.
At the time, Shepard said the center would have to raise $500,000 by April 30 – the last day of its current budget – to continue its programming, or shut down.
Smith provided the first big gift, with her $100,000 donation, and offered to match another $400,000. Shepard said the Maine Winter Sports Center has raised about $200,000 from individual donors.
“We’re talking about a lot of $50, $100 donations, along with some $1,000,” he said. “We’ve had an awful lot of support coming in. To get (that much) in small donations from private individuals around the state is a lot.’’
Shepard said the Maine Winter Sports Center has received two $10,000 donations – from the Margaret E. Burnham Charitable Trust and George T. Shaw of the Knubble Bay Fund of the Maine Community Foundation – as well as a $25,000 gift from a donor who wishes to remain anonymous.
“What we need is for a couple of people to step forward with larger gifts,” he said. “We’ve got this matching gift (from Smith) that we don’t want to lose.”
Smith, whose late husband, Rodney, was a pioneer in the semiconductor industry, has made other significant donations in Aroostook County. In 2011, she donated $1.2 million to Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle. With that money, the school is constructing the Rodney Smith Wellness Center.
Shepard has been talking with several Maine corporations about sponsorships, and several charitable foundations have indicated interest in helping. He did not want to identify them.
“The companies are based in Maine,” he said. “They are iconic best-in-class Maine-based companies.”
Max Cobb, president and CEO of the U.S. Biathlon Association, said it is important for the Maine Winter Sports Center to continue. “There are so few places where athletes can really train for the biathlon,” he said. “The Maine Winter Sports Center is a flagship of those areas.”
Cobb has spoken to Shepard about how the U.S. Biathlon Association can help. It has always sponsored education programs for the center’s coaches and officials but last year also provided a $50,000 grant. “That was the first time we had a direct cash donation,” said Cobb. “I think we will continue along those lines. We’ll see exactly what the needs are as we get closer.”
Several of the Olympic athletes who trained at the center have written letters of support, including Currier, who is home for a short break.
“It was a starting point for me,” he said. “It was the original catalyst. Without it, there wouldn’t have been any other skiing or biathlon training.”
Before the Maine Winter Sports Center arrived, Currier said he might have skied recreationally on weekends. But the center gave him the impetus to pursue biathlon at its highest level.
Others who support the center said its effects go far beyond the Olympic Games. While Currier has become the poster child for what the Maine Winter Sports Center can do – help send a local athlete to the Olympics – its other programs are just as important. Its Healthy Hometowns program reaches out to about 150 communities in Maine, providing recreational opportunities for families. The Maine Winter Sports Center leases equipment and provides instruction in activities such skiing, mountain biking, hiking, canoing and kayaking.
“It’s not just about doing something in the winter, but other seasons as well,’’ said Bob Sprague, a retired teacher in Caribou. “It has done a lot to promote healthy lifestyles for children. It provides them with self-confidence. It has had a tremendously positive effect for the kids that I have been involved with, the communities that I have been involved with, for The County and for the state.’’
The 69-year-old Sprague, who still tutors at the high school, contributed $1,000 to the campaign and hopes others see the value he does in the Maine Winter Sports Center.
“Sometimes people call The County the crown of the state of Maine,” he said. “If that’s true, then some of the jewels in that crown are because of all the hard work that Maine Winter Sports has done.’’
Matthew McCourt of Farmington contributed $100 to the campaign, saying he has seen its positive effects in his community. He helped start a Nordic skiing youth program and received valuable assistance from the center.
“It helps families become more active, get outside and exercise,” he said. “They have made a huge impact.”
Cobb said that the economic and social impact the center has had throughout Maine is notable.
“Whether it’s raising the aspirations of young student-skiers to go to a top-tier college, or providing the learning that they’ve received from being part of a program that is part of the Olympic track, or competing for a spot on the Olympic team,” he said, “on all those levels, the tangible impact on young people’s lives is obvious.”
And that’s why Shepard is determined to make sure the center meets its fundraising goal. Anyone wishing to contribute can do so by going to the Maine Winter Sport Center’s website at www.mainewsc.org.
“We’re looking at this as if we have a $400,000 campaign,” he said. “And we’re determined to get it all.”
Mike Lowe can be reached at 791-6422 or at: