Updated cutline: Fans fill the stands at the Harold Alfond Sports Stadium at the University of Maine in this 2019 file photo. A new turf field surface at Morse Field, where UMaine football plays, is among the facility improvement plans. Credit: Courtesy of Peter Buehner

The University of Maine’s needy athletic facilities have received a major shot in the arm.

The Harold Alfond Foundation is providing the athletic department with an unprecedented gift of $90 million, the organization announced on Wednesday morning. It will be the largest single gift to athletics at a public university in New England and among the largest gifts ever, nationwide.

It was part of a $240 million grant to the University of Maine system.

It will be distributed over the next 10 years and is the lead gift in a planned $110 million investment in athletic facilities on the Orono campus. All the money is expected to be funded through private philanthropy.

The transformative gift will go toward capital projects in direct support of the master plan to upgrade the athletic facilities.

Details of the plan will be disclosed at a later date.

Last year, UMaine Athletic Director Ken Ralph had hired JLG Architects of Grand Forks, North Dakota, which has a similar climate to Maine’s, to evaluate its athletic facilities and space in order to come up with a long-term plan for improvement to the facilities.

Ralph said based on their research, it is believed to be the sixth largest individual gift from one donor in the history of Division I sports.

“Very few athletic departments have a day like we’ve had today. I am so grateful to the Harold Alfond Foundation staff and board members. They have worked quite hard with us over a period of years to put this together,” Ralph said during a press conference at the Alfond Family Lounge in Alfond Arena that also featured University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy and UMaine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy.

Ralph said it will be the driving force behind a capital project he called essential for varsity athletics, intramurals, club sports and youth sports in the region.

“I really expect this to move the needle not just with our competitiveness, but as an economic driver for Penobscot County and, hopefully, an enrollment drive at the University of Maine,” he said.

Ralph would like to see the university host high school championship games like it does for one football state title game each year.

President Ferrini-Mundy called it a “phenomenal investment” and Chancellor Malloy said “it is an unbelievable opportunity for the UMaine System, particularly with respect to the athletic program.”

Chancellor Malloy added that they need to continue to raise money.

Ralph said he didn’t anticipate any substantial construction to begin until the summer of 2022, and even that might be a little aggressive.

“But I work for a very forward-thinking president and a very forward-thinking and aggressive chancellor who want to see things happen [expediently] and they are going to hold my nose to the grindstone and make it [happen],” Ralph said.

At the top of the list is improving the women’s soccer and softball facilities and purchasing a new FieldTurf surface on Morse Field in Alfond Stadium, where the Black Bears play football.

The shelf life of a FieldTurf surface is 8 to 15 years according to Ralph and this fall would have been the 13th on the surface.

The COVID-19 pandemic pushed the fall football season to the spring.

Several former and current UMaine players called the football surface the worst in the Colonial Athletic Association.

“We’re going to start with gender equity first,” Ralph said.

“Things are difficult for the women in our programs. The soccer team plays on the outfield of the baseball field [Mahaney Diamond]. That’s embarrassing to have to play in that environment. That doesn’t feel like a quality Division I experience. All their opponents have their own dedicated [soccer] field. So we’ll be solving that,” said Ralph, who would also like to see the softball team get a synthetic surface replacing its dirt infield and lights.

The soccer team has shared Mahaney Diamond with the baseball team since 2014 because virtually all of its league opponents play on artificial turf and UMaine’s former field was a grass surface with poor drainage. So the Black Bears were at a distinct disadvantage.

Ralph said Malloy and Ferrini-Mundy have let it be known they want to see some “movement” on a new artificial turf surface for the football field soon.

Ralph also wants to move the outdoor track, which circles the football field, to another location on campus and improve the field hockey field.

The UMaine athletic director stressed that they aren’t looking at building “gawdy FBS [Football Bowl Subdivision]-level facilities.”

“What we’re going to do is going to be very appropriate for Maine, who we are, where we are and what we intend to be.

“They will be simple, classy and functional. Too many people celebrate form over function. That can’t be us. We have to be efficient, we have to be meaningful and we have to be thoughtful. Remember, you have to be able to maintain these facilities once they’re up so we will have these quality facilities in the future. You can’t build something that will fall into disrepair,” Ralph said.

He said having top-notch facilities will help recruiting.

“Facilities mean more [to student-athletes] now because recruits can look at your facilities on a website and form an opinion whether the school cares about their sport. You need to show them a good, workable, comfortable, spirited facility. When your soccer team is playing on the baseball field, how much do you think they feel the school cares about [soccer]?” he posed.

Ralph has also discussed improving the Alfond Arena, which is now 44 years old, and looking into someday building a basketball facility on campus.

The UMaine men’s and women’s basketball teams play at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.

The execution of their master plan will “positively impact all 17 of our varsity programs” he said.

“Some of them will get new facilities and others will have their facilities upgraded,” he said.

But he pointed out that there are a number of steps ahead before they begin construction.

“We’re still in the conceptual phase with our architects. Hopefully, we can bring [a plan] to the public in the next three to four weeks,” Ralph said.

He added that it will also enhance the spectator experience and the “Alfond legacy.”

The foundation is named after the late Harold Alfond, the founder of the Dexter Shoe Company and a longtime philanthropist after whom the school’s ice arena and football stadium are named.