It was quite the shock when the Maine Winter Sport Center lost its biggest sponsor, the Libra Foundation, this past February. The Foundation, which had supplied roughly $1.4 million of the Center’s revenue in past season and over $33 million since the Center’s start 15 years ago, decided it was simply time to part ways and let the Center find success on its own.
While the pull of funds followed the guidelines to the Libra Foundation’s model facilitating the growth of community organizations, the suddenness of the withdrawal threw many within the Center into shock and jeopardized its ability to secure funding for the next fiscal year. Since then, the organization has been scrambling to gather donations for the coming year.
For those who haven’t been apart of the Maine Winter Sports Center it’s easy to think of the organization as another ski club that makes up part of the nordic community in the U.S. In reality, it is much more.
In providing the means for areas like Black Mountain and Rumford (site of the 2011 and 2012 Cross Country Championships) and the Nordic Heritage Center (host of the 2014 IBU World Youth/Junior Biathlon Championships) MWSC has established an infrastructure for nordic skiing to flourish in the state. In addition, with well over 4,000 youths involved in the Center’s programs, MWSC has been making an impact on its surrounding community.
In order to make sure that impact continues, Andy Shepard, President and CEO of MWSC, has been on an all-out blitz to secure as many donations as possible before the end of April.
His efforts have proven successful thus far, as the Center has raised roughly $810,000 since the February announcement.
“It’s not enough for us to run our full range of programs for the year. It’s enough to get started, but we have an ongoing funding campaign that ends this month,” Shepard said in a phone interview. “The sense of urgency around this is the fact that the fundraising campaign ends at the end of the month.”
Fortunately, the Center may have found some luck in a local benefactor. Mary Barton Smith, a Presque Isle, Maine native with ties to the origins of Silicon Valley, has offered a $400,000 matching gift that must be met by April 30th.
“[Smith] appreciates the work of the Maine Winter Sports Center,” said Shepard. “Her primary focus is on the health of Maine’s youth and realizes the role that the Maine Winter Sports Center is playing across the state, but particularly in Aroostook County on trying to address childhood obesity and create a healthier lifestyle.”
Smith has agreed to match any donations up to $400,000 by April 30th. Currently the Maine Winter Sports Center has raised $210,000 since the start of the matching campaign, most of which has come from donations of $5 or $10 from the local community. “[The gifts are] from individuals and families that have been a part of our program around the state or who respect the work that we do.”
“That’s encouraging to us because they’re coming from all over the state and other countries.”
In addition, several five-digit donations have been gifted, including a $25,000 from an anonymous donor.
As of now, the Maine Winter Sports Center is focused on securing as much funding as possible for next year. However, as soon as the money is secured, the emphasis will shift towards long-term sustainability.
While still in the initial phases of implementation, Shepard has about $310,000 in long-term sponsor agreements. He believes he can get that number up to $500,000 or $600,000.
“And then the focus beyond that is creating a foundation and focusing on creating an endowment to secure the long-term sustainability of the Center for generations to come,” he said.
With this major shift in its budget, the Maine Winter Sports Center will have to undergo some changes, but not enough for anyone affected by the Center’s programs to notice. One such change will be the split of the company into two separate organizations. Programming across the state will remain as the Maine Winter Sports Center and will be run by Shepard and a new operating board. The 10th Mountain and Nordic Heritage Centers will become Aroostook Nordic Inc., which will continue to be supported by the Libra Foundation.
“The takeaway of all of this, is that from the perspective of those in the community we don’t anticipate that they will see a change in what we’re doing. We’re going to continue to offer the programs that we have and in fact we have some plans on expanding some of our programs like the youth racing program that we’re looking to expand across the state,” said Shepard of the restructuring process.
“The question is with our resources how do we scale these programs to meet the emerging needs of the state of Maine in a sustainable way as possible. That’s what we need to figure out.”
Shepard has faith that everything will happen as it should, at the very least because of his excellent staff. “If anyone can figure out how to do this, it’s these guys,” he said.
One such staff member is Will Sweetser, Competitive Program Director and Cross Country Coach at the Center. According to the Dartmouth graduate, not much will change in regards to the competitive side of the Center. Most competitive team skiers will remain, such as Welly Ramsey and Omar Bermejo, with the exception of those headed to National Team for biathlon, like Russell Currier and Annalise Cook.
The only real change to the membership of the competitive team will be the departure of Kris Freeman, who joined the team this past season after leaving the U.S. Ski Team.
“[Kris] is pretty confident in his funding abilities and is stepping away from the program requirements that would have him in Maine. He’s going to stay closer to home for the rest of his training,” said Sweetser. “The relationship with Kris is still really good. He and I still talk quite a bit and there is no negativity on either side.”
Despite a history of hosting top-tier athletes, further recruitment to the Maine Winter Sports Center’s elite team seems unlikely and as the organization continues forward they plan on finding their talent from within Maine.
“We were some of the first to recruit so-called elite-level athletes to the full-funded club program. We started that 12 years ago, but in the years that have come we have built a strong enough structure in Maine that we seem to be able to generate enough national level and beginning international level athletes. It’s not really necessary for us to look outside state borders,” said Sweetser.
With a successful fundraising campaign and a continued plan to grow the Center’s capacity, Sweetser believes the development program will continue to mature.”We’ll see the Maine Winter Sports Center evolve in a more robust Olympic development program for the state of Maine. It’s my contention that you’ll see other sport clubs follow our lead when we’re able to do that.”
“We really do capture the imagination of young Maine athletes looking to go beyond the high school ranks, and they see kids and young adults in their neighborhood who are able to pursue their dreams in college and after college right here at home. I think that’s a really valuable tool for our state. I look forward to seeing that continue.”
At the end of the day, Shepard believes that the Maine Winter Sports Center is an essential centerpiece to the Maine’s sports culture and society. With programs in 140 communities across Maine, it’s hard to imagine the loss that Center would not only have on the Maine community, but the nordic ski community across the country.
“The Maine Winter Sports Center has a 15 year track record of making a difference in Maine. Our programs have been recognized around the country and around the world. There’s a tremendous amount of respect for what we do and how we do it and the past eight weeks have demonstrated in a most profound way how important what we do is to the people of Maine.”
To donate to the Maine Winter Sports Center access their website here, or send to Maine Winter Sports Center, 552 Main St. Caribou, ME 04736.
Lander Karath is FasterSkier's Associate Editor from Bozeman, Montana and a Bridger Ski Foundation alumnus. Between his studies at Middlebury College in Vermont, he is an outdoor enthusiast and a political junkie.