The Memorial Gymnasium and field house complex has been a hub of activity and the architectural anchor on the north end of the University of Maine’s Orono campus since it was dedicated in 1933.

Time and extensive use have taken a toll on the facility over the years, but the university on Friday moved a huge step closer to beginning much-needed renovations on that building and Alfond Arena.

UMaine interim athletic director Steve Abbott announced that the Harold Alfond Foundation has agreed to provide $5.5 million toward renovations to the Memorial Gym and Alfond Arena.

“Our foundation believes it is critical that the university’s facilities, which benefit so many students, be of the highest quality, and we are pleased that the university is taking the necessary steps to enhance both the Alfond Arena and the Memorial Gym and field house with our help and the generous support of other donors,” Alfond Foundation board of trustees chairman Greg Powell said in a press release.

The Alfond Foundation gift, the third-largest ever bestowed upon UMaine, includes $3.5 million for improvements to the arena that Bears the name of late philanthropist Harold Alfond and a matching grant of $2 million to facilitate the proposed $14 million gymnasium/field house project.

That means for every two dollars raised by UMaine for the gym, the Alfond Foundation will donate one dollar.

“Maine has a tradition of excellence and a tradition of commitment to the community and there’s no person who typifies that attitude more than the late Harold Alfond,” Abbott said during a press conference in the UMaine Sports Hall of Fame, located in the lobby of Memorial Gym.

“This gift will forever amplify the Alfond legacy and it’s an impact that will be felt in many ways,” he added. “Future Black Bears are going to benefit greatly from these improved facilities.”

The donation brings to $14.3 million the total Harold Alfond and his foundation have given to the university over the years.

Abbott, who has spent considerable time working on fundraising since taking his post in September, explained the Memorial Gym donation leaves the university $4 million shy of its goal to begin retrofitting the facility.

UMaine officials met Wednesday with architects to discuss the project, which Abbott expects will take approximately two years to complete.

The scheduled gym and field house work will include the removal of hazardous material, including asbestos and mercury. Those health concerns, along with issues pertaining to compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, helped open the door for a $7 million bond spearheaded by Gov. John Baldacci and approved last April by the Maine Legislature.

“I want to especially thank Gov. Baldacci, who played an invaluable and critical role in supporting this project,” said UMaine President Robert Kennedy. “Without his support and help, this project simply would not have come to fruition.”

The Memorial Gym renovations will involve reconstructing the gymnasium, affectionately known as “The Pit,” along with surrounding offices, the training room and the academic center. The track in the field house also will be replaced.

“We’ve got a target, which is we want to play basketball here for the 2013-2014 season,” Abbott said. “To hit that timetable, we’d need to complete our fundraising by the end of 2011.”

There is a palpable excitement for UMaine basketball coaches Ted Woodward and Cindy Blodgett, whose programs will reap the benefits of practicing and playing in a new facility.

“Kids want to walk in and envision themselves in a Black Bear uniform,” Woodward said of recruits who visit campus. “The one thing we haven’t been able to do is walk them onto the middle of the court and look around and say, ‘this is where you’re going to have your career.’”

Woodward alluded to The Pit’s reputation as a memorable place to play and watch a basketball game and hopes that atmosphere can be rekindled.

Blodgett conceded the issue of the Bears not being able to practice on their home court is one she must explain when potential Black Bears tour UMaine.

“So many coaches use it against us,” she said. “We do our best in recruiting to downplay it.”

However, Blodgett is a believer in the Alfond philosophy of offering a challenge grant, which should involve many other people in the process.

“What a compliment that is. They’re saying yes, we’ll help you, but you have to be willing to help yourself,” she said. “That teaches you about values. You’ve got to give to get.”

It appears the needed upgrades at Alfond Arena may have opened the door for the substantial gifts.

Men’s hockey coach Tim Whitehead approached Baldacci about significant issues that needed to be addressed inside the facility, which also serves as the home venue for UMaine men’s and women’s basketball.

Alfond Arena has needs in terms of ADA compliance, removal of mold in the ceiling, an aging chiller system to make ice for the rink, a dehumidification system, new seating on the lower level, a sound system and other improvements.

“I felt, after I’d had a little bit of a tour, Mr. Alfond would not appreciate his building being in this condition,” admitted Baldacci, who had worked closely with the founder of the former Dexter Shoe Co. empire.

The Alfond Arena renovations are estimated to cost $4.85 million, and UMaine is still $1.035 million away from reaching that goal.

Baldacci praised all involved for their efforts in supporting the projects.

“Bob Kennedy is a terrific leader and has got a great administrative team,” Baldacci said. “Dick Collins (who donated $1 million to jumpstart the gym project in 2007) has been leading the private effort.

“The real credit goes to Greg Powell and the Alfond Foundation being there for us,” he added.

Baldacci also lauded former UMaine men’s basketball coach Skip Chappelle for his tireless work behind the scenes in bringing to light the programs’ need for a basketball-only facility and bringing the parties together.

The beneficiaries of the facility upgrades are expected to be numerous, not only the student-athletes.

“At the same time, our fans are going to enjoy significant enhancements as they provide the support that’s so vital to the success of our programs,” Abbott said.

Baldacci vowed continued assistance in securing the remaining money needed to complete the renovations.

“You’re going to come up the hill at the University of Maine and you’re going to see that place (Memorial Gym/field house) shining from when you first get there until you leave,” Baldacci said.

Pete Warner

Pete graduated from Bangor High School in 1980 and earned a B.S. in Journalism (Advertising) from the University of Maine in 1986. He grew up fishing at his family's camp on Sebago Lake but didn't take...