ORONO — Matt LeBretton, director of public affairs for New Balance, said he received a call from Steve Abbott after Abbott had been named the interim athletic director at the University of Maine last August.
LeBretton had known Abbott from Abbott’s days as the chief of staff for Sen. Susan Collins.
“He said he has this crazy idea. It may not go anywhere but he said he would be wrong if he didn’t bring it up,” recalled LeBretton. “He wanted to know if New Balance would be interested in making a large gift to the university.
“I told him we hadn’t contemplated anything in that context before. It wasn’t something we’d normally do. But it sounded very interesting,” said LeBretton.
LeBretton talked to the ownership, namely Jim Davis and his wife, Anne, and “our other leaders. Two months later, we toured the campus.
“It took us a couple of months to get through the lawyers but we got it together,” said LeBretton referring to the $5 million gift to the university which was formally announced at a press conference on Tuesday in the grandstands at Alfond Stadium
It is the largest corporate gift ever given to the university.
The gift will be primarily used to fund the renovations to the field house and Memorial Gym.
In return, New Balance will get its name on the field house and the Student Recreation and Fitness Center for 20 years.
But the teams won’t be under obligation to wear New Balance shoes or equipment.
Of the $5 million, $2 million will be earmarked as a challenge grant for the field house renovation.
It will be up the university to raise its own $2 million.
The other $3 million will go toward other university projects including the renovation of the Memorial Gym and ongoing maintenance for their other facilities like the Student Recreation and Fitness Center.
“We are humbled and flattered by New Balance’s generosity,” said UMaine President Robert Kennedy.
Abbott said they are hoping to begin renovating the field house next year and the Memorial Gym in 2013.
The university must still raise $5 million to reach the $19 million necessary for the renovation of the field house and Memorial Gym.
LeBretton said “it’s the fastest I’ve ever seen a large gift deal (come together) in my life.
“It’s a testament to the uniqueness of this place and to us,” said LeBretton. “Steve (Abbott), Bob (Dana) and everyone up here has been terrific to work with.”
Dana is the university’s vice president for student affairs and the dean of students.
New Balance makes athletic equipment including 7 million shoes annually. Three of their five manufacturing plants are in Maine: Skowhegan, Norridgewock and Norway.
They have 838 employees at the three plants in Maine.
“I applaud New Balance for making an extraordinary $5 million donation to my alma mater, the University of Maine,” said Sen. Olympia Snowe in a press release. “New Balance has served as a cornerstone of Maine and New England’s manufacturing base and when other companies were relocating jobs overseas, New Balance hired more Americans to produce high quality, Made-in-the-USA lines. This gift to UMaine is certainly indicative of New Balance’s commitment to our state and will make great strides on the UMaine campus.”
Interestingly, New Balance will follow another shoe-making philanthropist in making a large donation to the university.
The late Harold Alfond, who owned Dexter Shoe, donated millions of dollars to the university and has his name on two sports facilities on the Maine campus: Alfond Arena, where the two hockey teams and basketball teams play, and Alfond Stadium, where they play football.
“The Alfonds are to be applauded for everything they have done, not just here but throughout the state of Maine. It’s nice to be in their company as it relates to charity-giving in Maine,” said LeBretton whose family has roots in Waterville.
Mark Cavanaugh, the general manager in charge of sports marketing at New Balance, played football against Maine when he was at Northeastern, and said, “I couldn’t think of a better partnership.
“I’ve always admired the student-athletes who have come out of Maine,” said Cavanaugh. “They were always class acts and great athletes to boot.”
He said players, coaches and administrators at the university “always had very little ego but a lot to be proud of.”
He was also impressed by the fact the university is conducting a research project involving the viability of off-shore wind energy and by the success the athletic teams have had despite their geographic disadvantage and long winters.
Cavanaugh predicted that this gift will be “just the start of our relationship. It could bloom and grow beyond this and onto the playing field and courts for all of the student-athletes.”
LeBretton said another lure was the resiliency and work ethic that have also been a trademark of their company.
“One of the reasons this was so attractive to us was this is a gritty place to play. You can’t come to the University of Maine and be a prima donna and succeed,” said LeBretton. “You have to work hard. They were telling us how they were going to have to snow-blow the field to get their baseball games in.
“We love that. We’re the type of company that would like to go out and shovel the field off and then play,” LeBretton said.
LeBretton said yet another neat aspect of the partnership is that it will help foster “life-long physical fitness.”
The gift was understandably met with joy by university officials.
“It’s amazing. It’s very generous,” said newly named women’s basketball coach Richard Barron, who added that the bond between the university, the community and the state is one of the primary reasons he left his job as an assistant coach at North Carolina State to come to Maine.
“The University of Maine is a special place in the state. This really enforced everything I knew.”
Star Black Bear distance runner Riley Masters called it “very exciting.
“So many people are going to benefit from this,” said Masters.
Track coach Mark Lech said the athletes will benefit from running on a better surface in the field house and “the most important thing is it will help recruiting.”
Mary Cady, director of the Eastern Maine Indoor Track League for high school teams, said she is ecstatic.
“We can only use three lanes for the 200 and the relays due to a safety issue and now we’ll be able to have four lanes for those events,” said Cady. “And the track has cracks in it and we’ve had to duct tape areas.”