May 23, 2018
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‘Failure is not an option’ — Maine Winter Sports Center fighting for financial stability

By Julia Bayly, BDN Staff

FORT KENT, Maine — Eight weeks after learning that its major source of funding had dried up, the Maine Winter Sports Center has raised more than two-thirds of its $1.1 million operating budget for the 2014-2015 season.

But beyond this initial fundraising campaign, MWSC administrators and supporters are looking to establish an endowment to ensure continuation of the organization’s Nordic ski centers and its community-based programs operating in 140 towns around the state.

In February, the Libra Foundation announced it would no longer fund the program after 15 years as MWSC’s major source of operating capital.

MWSC administrators and supporters immediately began a fundraising campaign.

To date, according to Andrew Shepard, MWSC president, $890,000 has been raised, including half a million dollars pledged by Presque Isle native philanthropist Mary Smith Barton.

While still short of the $1.1 million goal, Shepard said MWSC has enough to continue operating after May 1.

“We are excited about that,” he said. Though he is still striving to raise the rest of the season’s operating budget by the start of the May 1 fiscal year, Shepard stressed that fundraising will now be a year-round focus for MWSC supporters.

“We need to be [financially] sustainable,” he said. “Eight weeks ago when we got word the Libra Foundation funding was ending, all focus was on figuring out how to secure funding for another year.”

Several Maine-based corporations, including L.L.Bean, Emera Maine, Dead River and the United Insurance Group have stepped up to commit a combined $300,000 in sponsorships for two to three years, Shepard said.

The ultimate goal, he said, is to establish a $15 million endowment to generate $750,000 in annual operating capital to supplement other corporate funding.

Since its founding 15 years ago, Maine Winter Sports has been responsible for bringing international and national Nordic ski competitions to Maine — including four World Cup Biathlon events, establishing four Nordic ski centers in Maine and spearheading outdoor programs in more than 140 Maine communities through its healthy hometowns initiative.

There are currently eight full-time and five part-time staff and coaches affiliated with both the Nordic centers and Healthy Hometowns programs.

MWSC currently operates the 10th Mountain Center in Fort Kent and the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle. Two former MWSC facilities — Black Mountain in Rumford and Big Rock in Mars Hill — were turned over to their respective communities in 2012 and 2013.

MWSC also partners with clubs and organizations in Madawaska, Presque Isle, Ashland, Caribou, Fort Fairfield, Limestone, New Sweden, Stockholm, Van Buren, St. Agatha, Westmanland and Woodland in planning and building Nordic ski trails in those communities.

Community outreach

Shepard estimates that MWSC-sponsored events such as the recent junior biathlon world cup in Presque Isle have resulted in an economic impact close to $100 million over the last 10 years.

Alain Ouellette, director of planning and economic development at the Northern Maine Development Commission, said Monday that he couldn’t confirm the figure but “there is little doubt they have had an impact. And that economic impact has been significant.”

MWSC programming, however, goes beyond dollars and cents, Shepard said.

“The Healthy Hometowns is our community development program that is intended to create greater access to, and awareness of how to lead a healthier lifestyle for people in Maine,” Shepard said. “The return to Maine communities is not in the form of dollars but health, productivity and all the social, economic and cultural benefits that go along with that.”

In Maine, 12.5 percent of children ages 10-17 are defined as obese, according to a recent National Survey of Children’s Health.

Supporters of Maine Winter Sports hope to lower that number by getting more children involved in an active lifestyle.

Maine Winter Sports spends about $450,000 a year on Healthy Hometowns for staff salaries, program costs and equipment. The remaining $650,000 in annual operating funds goes toward MWSC’s biathlon and cross-country ski programs devoted, in part, to developing the next generation of world-class and Olympic competitors, according to Shepard.

Maine Winter Sports does not track how many participants take part in Healthy Hometowns programs, but estimates it could be as high as 10,000 a year based on the amount of equipment used, including skis, boots and mountain bikes.

“The equipment is hugely important,” Lauren Jacobs, who runs Healthy Hometowns in central Maine for MWSC, said. “Very early on Maine Winter Sports [officials] saw the biggest hurdle to getting kids outside was access to equipment and facilities so we work really hard to address both those needs.”

Through Healthy Hometowns, MWSC makes the equipment available to schools and recreation departments for residents to use on a lease fee basis. The fees charged for using that equipment vary from program to program.

This past ski season, Jacobs said, she had 1,000 Nordic skis leased out to eighth graders around the state who each paid $65 for the skis, boots, poles and a ski bag.

“It’s a very good deal,” she said. “And a lot of community programs have ‘skierships’ to help out families and kids with the costs if they need it.”

Jacobs said the program also has trailers of additional outdoor equipment that travel around the state spending a week or so at a time in each Healthy Hometown community.

“That gear is there for one or two weeks for the kids to use for free,” she said.

“For us it’s all about developing the skill or grit in order for these kids to be successful in life,” Shepard said. “Life as we all know is about challenges and you either have the skills to work through it or you are in a constant state of being overwhelmed.”

Making a difference in Dedham

In Dedham, the 175 students in the local school department owe a lot to Maine Winter Sports and Healthy Hometowns, according to Tim Pearson, physical education instructor for grades kindergarten through eight.

“We have taken advantage of their resources through equipment and developing curriculum for use in our physical education classes,” Pearson said. “It’s all about getting the kids to stay active.”

And it has extended to the parents.

An after school winter “learn to ski” program, Pearson said, has been taken over by some parents who were trained in basic ski coaching methods and techniques by Healthy Hometown staff.

Mountain bike and Nordic ski programs are the focus of Dedham’s Healthy Hometowns programs and Pearson said last year the department spent $250 to rent a trailer load of 20 MWSC mountain bikes, helmets, spare tires and tools.

They then used Healthy Hometowns-developed curriculum to design programs for the students using those bikes.

“Could we do these programs without Healthy Hometowns?” Pearson said. “Probably, but not as effectively. They have expertise I don’t have.”

It seems to be working.

“Every Friday this past winter I had parents calling me to see if I can send skis home with the kids,” Pearson said. “I’m seeing parents coming to after school programs with their 4-year-olds asking if we have skis that will fit them.”

Stories like that, Shepard said, are why Maine residents should care and want to help keep Maine Winter Sports going.

“The fact we have a 15-year track record is a big deal,” Shepard said. “At this point, failure is not an option.”

Anyone interested in donating to the fundraising effort may do so by contacting Shepard at 232-3304 or online at

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