FORT KENT, Maine — After 15 years, the Libra Foundation is ending its financial relationship with the Maine Winter Sports Center, including its two world class Nordic ski venues in Presque Isle and Fort Kent, as of April 1.
“We got word a week and a half ago they are ending their funding at the end of this fiscal year,” Andrew Shepard, president of the Maine Winter Sports Center, said Tuesday morning, even as seven alumni of the program prepare to compete in the Winter Olympics beginning Thursday in Sochi, Russia. “My focus now is on fundraising to keep the Maine Winter Sports Center operating.”
The Libra Foundation’s contribution of about $550,000 each year represents nearly two-thirds of the center’s $885,000 annual budget. Shepard said that means to keep the center operational through the next fiscal year, he now will have to raise more than half a million dollars to supplement existing private and corporate financial support.
“We have in our favor that Maine Winter Sports over the last 15 years has developed a strong reputation across the globe and certainly in Maine,” he said. “I think people acknowledge that from Eliot to Fort Kent and from Farmington to the outer islands we are making a profound difference [and] a lot of people will not want to see it go.”
Founded in 1999, Maine Winter Sports received construction capital and startup funds from the Libra Foundation.
Since then, the philanthropic organization based in Portland has contributed close to $34 million to the Maine Winter Sports Center, according to Craig Denekas, Libra Foundation president.
On Tuesday, Denekas was quick to say the funding shut-off has nothing to do with any dissatisfaction his foundation has with the ski program.
“I would say we have been hugely pleased and the program is a tremendous success,” Denekas said. “The folks in [Aroostook] County where our two venues are located have worked extraordinarily hard and continue to do great work.”
Seven members of the 2014 U.S. Winter Olympic team are Maine Winter Sports Center alumni, including its first “home grown” Olympian, Russell Currier of Stockholm.
Both venues also are poised to become official Olympic training sites and later this month Presque Isle is hosting Junior World Cup Biathlon.
Shepard also noted the center’s Healthy Hometowns programs, which currently are promoting outdoor activities for youths in 140 Maine communities.
It was never the intent for the Libra Foundation to fund the Maine Winter Sport Center indefinitely, according to Denekas.
“This is simply a matter of the evolution of how these things work,” he said. “It is time for the program to stand on its own.”
That is how Libra Foundation funding works, Denekas said, adding, “We provide startup funds, fund the programs and then separate.”
While concerned about the upcoming lack of funding, Maine Winter Sports Center’s board chairman Brian Hamel said that if not for the 15 years of solid financial support from the Libra Foundation, the program would not be where it is today.
“We are very appreciative for all that Libra has done in the past,” Hamel said Tuesday afternoon. “Now it is our job to create a long-term, sustainable model to carry us into the future.”
Shepard said he knew all along that the Libra Foundation would at some point stop funding Maine Winter Sports, so the move did not come as a total surprise.
“Over the last couple of years we have had discussions on wanting to develop more fundraising for Maine Winter Sports,” he said. “We have been working on this and have had some success.”
Shepard and Denekas did say negotiations are ongoing surrounding any future funding involvement by the Libra Foundation with Maine Winter Sports.
While the foundation has been giving the center about $550,000 a year, Hamel said he hopes that it will agree to provide $50,000 annually to each of the training facilities in Fort Kent and Presque Isle.
“The venues are the critical core [of Maine Winter Sports] and those are physical facilities that most certainly we can structure to continue as hubs of activity,” Denekas said. “That is something we are prepared to make sure happens.”
Other options include a possible consolidation of Maine Winter Sports and the United States Biathlon Association — currently based in New Gloucester — or a cooperative agreement with the United States Ski Association.
“In many ways the Maine Winter Sports Programs have become essentially development programs for the USBA,” Denekas said. “So one has to ask oneself, should it not just become a part of it?”
Shepard, meanwhile, is devoting his time and energy — and that of his staff — to the short-term goal of raising the needed $550,000 to keep the programs running through next year.
“As far as I am concerned, this is too important to not get done, so we have no choice other than getting it done,” he said. “We believe the work of the Maine Winter Sports Center has been important to Maine and if the people of Maine believe that, now is the time to step up.”
Shepard has already begun an online fundraising campaign at www.mainewsc.org.
“Maine Winter Sports Center has been a great success and change is never easy,” Denekas said. “The question now is how to keep it healthy for the next 10 to 15 years.”