February 5

Hotbed for Maine Olympians loses its financing

The Aroostook County training center that is sending six athletes to the Olympics must raise $550,000 in three months.

By Mike Lowe mlowe@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Even as it continues to produce Olympic athletes, the Maine Winter Sports Center in Aroostook County faces an uncertain future.

click image to enlarge

Will Sweetser of the Maine Winter Sports Center leads skiers through a workout at the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle. Six athletes who trained at the center will compete in the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Wearing a Maine Winter Sports Center jersey, Meagan Toussaint of Madawaska takes aim with a rifle designed for use in the biathlon.

2004 Press Herald file photo by Gregory Rec

Additional Photos Below

Related headlines

2014 Olympians with Maine ties

Here are the athletes with Maine ties who are competing in Sochi, including those who train at the Maine Winter Sports Center:

Russell Currier, biathlon

Maine connection: From Stockholm, 2006 graduate of Caribou High School; trains at Maine Winter Sports Center.

Olympic experience: 2014

Lowell Bailey, biathlon

Maine connection: Trains at Maine Winter Sports Center; mom lives in Brunswick.

Olympic experience: 2006, 2010, 2014

Tim Burke, biathlon

Maine connection: Trains at Maine Winter Sports Center

Olympic experience: 2006, 2010, 2014

Lanny Barnes, biathlon

Maine connection: Trains at Maine Winter Sports Center

Olympic experience: 2006, 2010, 2014

Annelies Cook, biathlon

Maine connection: Trains at Maine Winter Sports Center

Olympic experience: 2014

Kris Freeman, cross-country skiing

Maine connection: Trains at Maine Winter Sports Center

Olympic experience: 2014

Bode Miller, Alpine skiing

Maine connection: From Easton, N.H., a 1996 graduate of Carrabassett Valley Academy

Olympic experience: 1998, 2002 (won two silver medals), 2006, 2010 (won gold, silver, bronze medals), 2014

Emily Cook, aerials

Maine connection: From Belmont, Mass., a 1997 graduate of Carrabassett Valley Academy

Olympic experience: 2006, 2010, 2014

Annalisa Drew, halfpipe

Maine connection: Post-grad student Carrabassett Valley Academy for 2011-12 season

Olympic experience: 2014

Emily Bamford, Alpine skiing (Australia)

Maine connection: Student at Bates College

Olympic experience: 2014

Jimmy Howard, men’s ice hockey

Maine connection: Played at University of Maine

Olympic experience: 2014

Forest Carey, coach, U.S. ski team

Maine connection: Former coach at Carrabassett Valley Academy

Olympic experience: 2014

Mark Fawcett, Canada’s Alpine snowboard coach

Maine connection: A 1990 graduate of Carrabassett Valley Academy

Olympic experience: 2002

The Libra Foundation, which has provided the primary financial support for the center and its world-class facilities in Fort Kent and Presque Isle, will end the funding after April 30. The foundation, which provided nearly $1.4 million of the center’s $1.7 million in revenue last year, will move on and look to other projects, said Libra’s president and CEO.

The news came just days before the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, which will include six competitors who trained at the Maine Winter Sports Center: one cross country skier and five biathletes, including the first Maine native to go through the program, Russell Currier of Stockholm. Another has been named to the U.S. Paralympic team.

Andy Shepard, president and CEO of the sports center, said he knew the day would come when the Libra Foundation’s funding would stop. “I just didn’t see it coming this precipitously,” he said Tuesday. “The hope was that there would be a more measured transition.”

Shepard is now beginning a fundraising campaign that he hopes will bring in $550,000 over the next three months to ensure that the center can operate next year. That would also give him time to come up with a long-range financial plan.

“I’m talking to anyone who will listen,” Shepard said.

Craig Denekas, president and CEO of the Libra Foundation, said it was simply time to move on. He said the Portland-based foundation, formed by the late philanthropist Elizabeth Noyce, had distributed $33 million to $34 million to the Nordic and alpine operations at the sports center since it opened in 1999.

“We look at it this way: We started it and we’ve run it for 15 years, and it’s come to a very good point,” said Denekas. “Let’s now figure out how it’s going to move on and flourish for the next 15 years. ... And that’s in keeping with our typical model for this sort of thing.”

The foundation typically helps start nonprofits and continues funding them until they can stand on their own. Last summer, it ended its funding for the sports center’s two alpine ski areas, Black Mountain in Rumford and Bigrock Mountain in Mars Hill, after making multimillion-dollar investments in each.

At the two facilities in Aroostook County, the center has produced 13 Olympic athletes over the years, hosted World Cups and world championships – the Nordic Heritage Ski Center in Presque Isle will host the world junior biathlon championships Feb. 28 to March 8 – and made a big impact across the state with its Healthy Hometowns program.

“The success (of the center) indicates this is exactly the right reason, the right time, to (end funding),” Denekas said. “One, we’re at the end of an Olympic cycle. Two, it’s been going on 15 years. When you think about the accomplishments the communities have made, the athletes have made, now is exactly the right time for the message to be ‘It works.’ And it’s time for it to stand on its own.”

Denekas said there’s nothing negative about the center or the way it operates.

“I think the project has hit foursquare on all of its objectives,” he said, including training of elite athletes, economic development and anti-obesity programs.

Denekas said he believes that businesses will support what Max Cobb, president of the U.S. Biathlon Association, calls “the best-developed biathlon site in the USA.” Already, L.L. Bean and Emera Maine – the company formed Jan. 1 by the merger of Bangor Hydro Electric and Maine Public Services – have joined as corporate sponsors.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Andy Shepard is the CEO and president of the Maine Winter Sports Center.

John Patriquin / Staff Photographer

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click image to enlarge

Will Sweetser of the Maine Winter Sports Center leads skiers through a workout at the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle. Six athletes who trained at the center will compete in the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer



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