WATERVILLE, Maine — Thomas College has received a $5.3 million gift aimed at sparking new businesses and bolstering existing ones across Central Maine.

The small business and liberal arts college on Wednesday announced the donation from the Harold Alfond Foundation, the largest in the school’s history, which will help create the Harold Alfond Institute for Business Innovation.

When it debuts next fall, the institute will offer a range of opportunities, from paid internships and mentorship programs that will pair students up with dozens of area businesses looking for help, to innovation workshops for employers who want to learn new approaches to solving challenges in their businesses.

The foundation approached Thomas College officials three years ago, challenging them to come up with a plan to help encourage new businesses in the region, offering funding and support for the initiative as the reward.

Laurie Lachance, the college’s president, said about 80 percent of Thomas’ graduates stay in Maine after school to work, and about half of those stay in the Central Maine. She said those students could play a big role in rebuilding the region’s economy.

“The Alfond Foundation believes in the transformative role of higher education and the role it can play in greater economic development,” said Greg Powell, chairman of the foundation.

Thomas came back with the plan for the institute. Mike Duguay, the former director of business development for Summit Natural Gas of Maine, has been tapped to serve the new enterprise’s executive director.

Lachance said the state has watched the rebirth of cities like Portland, Bangor, Lewiston-Auburn and coastal towns who have had to reinvent themselves over the years.

“It is our turn, Central Maine,” she said. “It’s time. The Alfond Foundation has invested in us, they believe in us, and we can do this.”

The Alfond Foundation, which regularly supports business and education causes across the state, has invested in Thomas College before. In 2014, the school opened the Harold Alfond Academic Center thanks in part to a matching investment from the Alfond Foundation.

In 2004, Alfond gave the school a $1.25 million grant to build its athletic center, which became a focal point on campus and sparked a renewed focus in campus investments and improvements.

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