The University of Maine System's board of trustees will consider whether to use $26 million to improve the university’s athletic facilities.
Clockwise from left: Renderings of the Shawn Walsh Center for ice hockey, the indoor dome facility, the Memorial Gym and the Multipurpose Facility. Credit: Courtesy of the University of Maine

The University of Maine needs more money than it anticipated upfront for the early rounds of more than $100 million in athletic facility upgrades, as the university runs into construction cost spikes that have been part of a nationwide phenomenon.

The major upgrades to UMaine’s athletic facilities planned over the next decade or so — including a new basketball building, three new lighted outdoor artificial turf fields and two new domed facilities — are propelled by a $90 million grant from the Harold Alfond Foundation announced nearly two years ago.

The gift was the largest ever for athletics at a public university in New England, to be matched by $20 million in fundraising by UMaine’s athletics department.

But as UMaine embarks on the first round of projects, substantial cost increases that have complicated a number of other construction projects in Maine and nationwide mean the university needs more money upfront for the work than it originally planned, said Ryan Low, the University of Maine System’s vice chancellor for finance and administration.

“Inflation and construction costs are going up, so what we thought we could build two years ago is different from what we think we could build now,” Low said.

On Monday, the University of Maine System board of trustees will consider a request to allow the University of Maine to use an additional $26 million on top of $14 million already approved to start work on a 10-year master plan to improve the university’s athletic facilities.

The request is the result of bids on the highest-priority projects that are taking place first coming in at more than double early estimates largely due to rising costs in the construction market.

Trustees in January approved $14 million for a new soccer venue, field hockey field and a softball facility. But bids for that work came in at $33 million total, $19 million more than anticipated, according to materials shared with trustees.

The university now also plans on spending an additional $7 million to kick off the second phase of work on the athletic facilities. That work will include a new video scoreboard, new video displays and new lighting at Alfond Arena as well design work on projects slated to take place later on.

That brings the total difference in cost to $26 million.

“We’re having the same conversations that state governments are having, municipal governments are having, anyone that’s trying to do anything in this construction market are having,” Low said. “And that means, how do we stretch our dollars further? Does it mean the project needs to change in scale and scope?”

While the Alfond Foundation is pledging $90 million for all of the work, UMaine doesn’t have that money in hand yet. It’s set to receive $33 million, or nearly 37 percent of the total, over the first five years of the gift, with the remaining $57 million to come in the five years after that.

UMaine and the university system want to move more quickly on the project and plan to bear the brunt of the costs early on, according to materials provided to the system’s trustees ahead of their next meeting.

To get the work done faster, UMaine is looking to use a combination of external fundraising, reserves, short-term debt and intrasystem loans.

Additionally, the system has discussed with the Alfond Foundation the possibility of receiving more money to account for inflation or accelerating the funding timeline, Low said. So far, no decisions have been made, he said.

Construction is already underway on the softball field improvements and new softball batting pavilion, and the plan is to complete the soccer and field hockey projects before the start of the fall 2023 season.

Part of the need for the athletic facilities overhaul stems from a need under the federal law Title IX for UMaine to provide equitable opportunities to participate in sports for men and women. That equity requirement extends to athletic facilities.

That’s why the first phase of the project was focused on the construction of new artificial turf playing fields for the women’s soccer, softball and field hockey teams, Ken Ralph, who recently stepped down as the UMaine’s athletics director, said in February 2021.

University system trustees at their meeting next week will be asked to approve a $21 million loan from the University of Maine System to UMaine to make up for most of the anticipated difference in cost.

UMaine could either draw that money from its reserves, with the expectation of restoring it later on, Low said. Or the university system could loan the money directly to its flagship university, he said.

That will leave an additional $5 million that UMaine will have to find, some of which it already has on hand, Low said.

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Sawyer Loftus

Sawyer Loftus is an investigative reporter at the Bangor Daily News. A graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he worked for Vermont Public Radio, The Burlington Free Press...