ORONO, Maine — University of Maine athletic officials are $7 million closer to their goal of renovating the UMaine field house and adjoining facilities as well as building a new, basketball-only arena to replace Memorial Gymnasium.
With the Maine Legislature’s recent approval of a 10-year, $7 million UMaine revenue bond, the Memorial Gymnasium renovation plan — projected by UMaine officials to cost between $12.5 million and $15 million — is a little more than $8 million closer to being fully funded.
The renovation project could begin this summer and may be completed within a year and a half.
“This is a big boost for us. We’re probably looking for another $6 million currently,” said UMaine athletic director Blake James. “I want to thank the governor and Legislature for their help in recognizing the challenges and importance of this project.
“Obviously there are significant health and safety issues associated with this.”
Those health and safety issues concern building materials made of or containing asbestos used in the construction of the field house back in the late 1920s and mercury, which was used in the rubberized indoor track installed in the 1970s. If not for the presence of these hazardous materials, the bond would not have been ap-proved by the Legislature, according to James.
“What we’re anticipating doing is trying to tackle the renovation of the track and gym as early as this summer, so we’ll approach this in phases,” said Janet Waldron, UMaine’s vice-president for administration and finance. “We’re not going to wait for the entire funding before we issue the bond.
“We certainly have a concern about the condition of the track. We know we need to pull it up and we can begin to work on that immediately.”
The bond approval, outlined in LD 1671, which passed almost a month ago, increases the baseline debt service for UMaine to support the bond, according to David Farmer, Gov. John Baldacci’s deputy chief of staff.
“It will be used to bring the facility into compliance and to remove asbestos and mercury contamination,” Farmer said. “Essentially what we’re doing is we’re giving the university budget another $850,000 per year to use for this one particular purpose.”
James said the entire project is estimated to take, barring any complications, about 18 months to complete. UMaine officials are inviting and accepting bids from firms to do the design work for the project.
From backboards to bathrooms
The project will involve the renovation of everything within the field house, gym, and all adjoining facilities and offices — except for Wallace Pool.
“We’ve already done a number of different things with the pool on our own, so I don’t think there’ll be any part of the pool renovated during this project,” James said. “The field house, the internal open space, the pit [gym], offices, training room, academic center and other areas would be part of this project.”
James says it is not a “wrecking ball” project involving a total demolition and reconstruction.
“When you look at the shell of this building, I believe the basic shell will remain the same,” he said. “There may be some add-on here and there, but it won’t look significantly different outside. When you step inside, that’s where you’ll see a big change.”
The aim also is to better streamline facilities, such as bringing the university’s sports information department into the same facility. That department now is situated in a trailer parked behind the field house.
James said a realistic scenario could lead to completion of the project by fall 2012, but he’s not about to estimate a date for either groundbreaking or completion.
“From my understanding, this is an 18-month process from when you start it,” he said. “I’d like to be significantly into this project two years from now, maybe even close to finished.
“If we’re well into the project, or it’s completed in two years, we’re on my timeline or more probably ahead of it, but you don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. There are too many variables that will impact starting times, finishing times, whatever.”
Although it’s just a part of the overall project, a primary aim of the renovation is the creation of a modern basketball-only arena for Black Bear men’s and women’s games and practices. Building a replacement to the gymnasium affectionately coined “The Pit” is the primary impetus for a $1 million donation by St. Agatha native and 1959 UMaine graduate Dick “Rooster” Collins, who hopes to stimulate more private donations.
“We wanted the basketball arena to happen,” Collins said when announcing the donation in August 2007. “We’ll find the people to support it.”
The UMaine basketball teams play their games at Alfond Arena, but practice at Memorial Gym.
Finding the funding
Fundraising is tough enough, but in this economy, finding people with enough disposable or discretionary capital can be challenging.
“It’s not an ideal economy for fundraising, but this is different than our operating budget because this is a capital project,” James said.
James, who said the total of secured funding is “a little over $8 million,” is optimistic the estimated $6 million funding gap can be filled in the near future.
“Do I have any new major gifts to report to you? No, but we’ve had some indications from some people that they’ll be making a sizable gift in the near future and that the gifts will be significant, so I’m excited about that,” James said. “That gives me confidence we’re going to meet our part of the responsibility in making this project a reality.
“I think we’ll see serious commitments come in the next few months.”
Bangor native and successful real estate developer Tom Walsh, 82, is one name that has popped up in connection with the Memorial Gymnasium renovation.
“I’d rather not get into specific names, but if it is something that Tom Walsh is interested in, that’d be great,” said James. “Anyone in our state who’s had the success he has is very recognizable, so whenever there’s a great need, those names come up along with Harold Alfond, Stephen King and others.”
Walsh is founder and chairman of Ocean Properties Ltd., which is one of the largest privately held companies of its kind in the country. It owns or operates more than 100 hotels and resorts in North America.
Until the $7 million bond was finished, the only significant funding announced to date was a $1 million gift from Collins, a star basketball player at Maine.
The bond essentially is a loan taken out by the university.
“We will be issuing a $7 million bond and the payments on the principal and interest have been appropriated starting with the fiscal year 2012,” said Waldron. “We’re borrowing by using our bonding capacity as a university system with a bond backed by the revenue pledged by the university and state of Maine.”
Waldron said repayment on the loan likely would be done on an annual or biannual basis.
Although economic woes can work against a project such as this, they also can help in certain ways.
“It’s tougher to raise money in this economy, but at the same time there may be benefits in that where you have some companies wanting more work who want to do what they can to get your business,” James said.
James said he is going by his experience with other renovations and talks he has had with college officials around the country.
“When they did feasibility studies, they were given higher numbers and estimates than what the work actually ended up costing,” he said. “When we did our fields project, it came in under budget.
“People want to work, so I don’t know that it’s going to cost more. I’m estimating this will be somewhere between $12.5 [million] and $15 million. Hopefully it’ll come in lower.”