ORONO, Maine — In 1926, the field house at the University of Maine hosted its first track and field meet.
There was no heat, no lights and no electricity and the floor was dirt, with a cinder track surface.
During the last 30 years or so, it had modern conveniences, but it was dark, dingy and cool.
On Wednesday afternoon, the 90-year-old facility appeared almost brand-new. It was bright, warm and gleaming with brilliant blues and whites.
Members of the University of Maine track and field team helped usher in a new era for the program while using the New Balance Field House for the first time.
“The first thing I noticed walking in here is just how bright it is. It’s honestly amazing,” said Brian Woodbury of Scarborough, a senior thrower for the Black Bears.
“It just feels so much more lively and exciting,” added Rachel Wilkinson, a senior middle-distance runner from South Portland.
Nine months after the project was initiated, UMaine officials made the building available to the team and the local media to help celebrate its reopening.
For head track and field coach Mark Lech and his teams, the reopening not only is exciting, but will enable the athletes to return to their normal training regimen for the indoor season.
“This is pretty much everything I could have hoped for out of the construction,” Lech said of the overhaul. “It fulfills all our needs now and adds to the athletes.”
The New Balance Field House is the newest showplace for UMaine athletics. The $6 million overhaul to the facility is nearly complete and Wednesday workers were painting the lines on the infield basketball courts.
The renovations are part of a comprehensive $15 million project that will continue with extensive work in the adjacent Memorial Gym building.
Among the highlights of the construction were the installation of a new, 191-meter track with an added fourth competition lane, along with a second long jump/triple jump pit. Amenities also include a permanent throwing circle with retractable cage, new netting to enclose the infield, an updated air circulation/heating system and ADA accessibility.
UMaine also has installed a new spectator area with bleachers for approximately 280 fans. The track and infield use UMaine’s navy blue and Columbia blue colors.
“It’s essential for the University of Maine and the whole eastern Maine community,” said UMaine associate athletic director Will Biberstein.
“Looking to the long term, this is such a win-win for everybody; for our university athletes to the local high school athletes and everybody else in the community who uses this building,” he added.
Funding for the renovations included $2 million from a $5 million donation from the New Balance athletic apparel company, along with part of a $7 million university-generated revenue bond approved by the Legislature in 2010 to address removal of asbestos and mercury from the building and ADA compliance issues.
The happiest people in the building Wednesday were the members of the track team, many of whom were running and jumping on the new rubberized track for the first time.
“It’s incredible compared to what we used to have,” said senior sprinter and hurdler Jimmy Reed. “The field house was in dire need of a renovation and some updates. New Balance and the athletic administration took the time and they did it right.”
UMaine athletes also are hoping to see their performances improve by virtue of using the new track surface.
“It’ll certainly be faster than our old track, I’ll tell you that much,” said Reed, who recalled the tacky nature of the time-worn former track.
UMaine is scheduled to hold its first indoor meet of the season on Saturday against Holy Cross.
Biberstein said the facility received rave reviews on Saturday, when it was the site of two Penobscot Valley Conference-Eastern Maine Indoor Track League high school meets.
The final phase of the the field house work, which is scheduled to be performed next summer, will be the installation of a nine-foot-tall bank of windows around the upper edge of the facility.
Biberstein said the new lights already have improved the lighting from 3 foot-candles to 75 foot-candles, but the windows will improve that during the daytime.
Now, the first impression of the building is expected to have an impact.
“You’re going to walk in the door and look at the pop: Colors, brightness, everything to do with the facility,” Lech said.
“You can’t discount the ambiance, how nice it is in here now,” he added.
One key area it is expected to help is in UMaine’s recruiting.
“If you have a nice facility, especially when it’s somewhere where it’s really cold and there’s a long winter, that’s a big draw to be able to come in here and train throughout the whole indoor season,” Reed said.
“I’m hoping that more high schoolers from the state of Maine will feel the pride that we’re feeling right now and want to come here and experience it for themselves,” Wilkinson said.