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. in downtown Waterville, where the technology company CGI Group will move this summer. It plans to bring about 200 jobs to the area in the next few years.

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

More than 100 state and local officials, as well as business leaders and representatives of FAME, CGI, Colby and the Alfond Foundation packed the first floor of the Hains Building for the announcement Tuesday.

Powell said the Alfond Foundation would contribute $5.5 million toward starting the program, which would pay as much as 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 noted that 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 average Maine college student debt at nearly $30,000 – the seventh-highest 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, adding that 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, hospital and education officials, business leaders, 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.”

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

Amy Calder can be contacted at 861-9247 or at:

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