The Portland Phoenix

‘Boston North’: Harold Alfond Foundation bets big on ‘knowledge economy’ in Portland

Greg Powell, chairman of the Harold Alfond Foundation: “Harold thought everyone should benefit from being outdoors, and making sure it wasn’t all work." (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

When University of Southern Maine President Glenn Cummings looks down the slope from his office at Masterton Hall on the Portland campus, he sees a vast parking lot. If a plan endorsed by the University of Maine System trustees comes to pass, a college green will replace the parking lot, surrounded by a new state-of-the-art student center and the first Portland dorm, housing more than 500 students.

Across Bedford Street, wrapped around the existing Wishcamper Center, a new Graduate and Professional Center, or “Maine Center” will rise, incorporating the University of Maine School of Law, business and engineering programs, and two public policy programs: the Muskie School and the Cutler Institute.

This $160 million plan, unprecedented in the school’s history, came a lot closer to reality with the pledge last month of $40 million for the Maine Center from the Alfond Foundation. It’s part of $240 million for the University of Maine System’s Portland and Orono campuses – nearly half the $500 million package, also unprecedented among Maine philanthropies.

For Portland, there’s much more.

A $30 million grant to the University of New England will facilitate moving its medical school, now in Biddeford, to the old Westbrook College campus, joining UNE’s other health professions programs, including dentistry, nursing, and health occupations. The $70 million project is slated for completion in 2023.

A view around the corner of the Glickman Family Library, right, at the future site of the Maine Graduate and Professional Center on the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus. In the background is the Wishcamper Center. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Finally, the fledgling Roux Institute, an extension of Northeastern University’s powerhouse artificial intelligence research programs, will receive $100 million from Alfond. The grant builds on Lewiston-born entrepreneur David Roux’s signature gift, growing the institute from its startup on the Portland waterfront.

In all, the Alfond grants have the potential to create in Portland a “Boston North” of professional education programs in law, medicine, business, and research that have been at the heart of the Hub’s remarkable economic and financial success over the past two generations as the economic engine of New England.

This integration of the “knowledge economy” in Maine’s largest city was much on the foundation board’s mind, its chairman, Greg Powell, said recently.

Powell said the financial commitment recognizes changes in the UMaine System, especially the unified accreditation system approved earlier this year, that position it for growth in its research capabilities and its graduate and professional programs.

“The university system is the largest educator in the state, serving nearly 30,000 students and offering affordable education to everyday Mainers and their children,” Powell said. “This commitment promotes those aspects of the system that create workplace skills vital to the modern economy.”

Health care opportunities

Another high-growth opportunity for new jobs is health care, not only because Maine’s demographics make it the nation’s oldest state, but because so many doctors and other health professionals are due for retirement.

“Physicians are now working into their 70s, sometimes because they’re the only doctor left in a rural area,” said James Herbert, president of the University of New England, which has Maine’s only medical school, the College of Osteopathic Medicine. Osteopathy emphasizes a patient-centered approach, unlike the specialty-based practices emphasized by the American Medical Association.

The entrance to the University of New England’s Stevens Avenue campus in Portland, which is earmarked to become home to the school’s College of Osteopathic Medicine. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

This distinction is critical for UNE, Herbert said: “Health care has a lot of silos in it, a lot of barriers.” The rest of the health care programs have already moved to the Portland campus on Stevens Avenue. When the new building opens, interdisciplinary training, with medical students joining nurses for various programs, will expand.

“It’s a common-sense idea, but not the norm elsewhere,” Herbert said.

While there are larger medical schools in the Northeast, the combination of medical, nursing, occupational, dentistry, and pharmacy programs on one site is unique, he said. The space created by the move of the medical school to Portland will allow UNE to expand its marine science programs – its fastest-growing offerings – in Biddeford.

Most of the new primary care physicians in Maine, Herbert said, will be trained by UNE. That’s crucial to keeping health care accessible in rural Maine, something the Alfond Foundation has long recognized.

Harold Alfond once had a health emergency on the road in Somerset County, and he believed a local osteopathic doctor, the lone practitioner in the area, saved his life: “He brought me back,” Alfond told listeners. The foundation has made donations to UNE’s osteopathic training programs ever since.


UNE, unlike many private universities, has only a small endowment, which Herbert said helps keep it focused on student needs: “We can be more nimble, more responsive, because we have to be.” So far, unlike many universities, UNE hasn’t laid off any faculty or made cutbacks to retirement programs due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Now, it has to earn the Alfond grant by raising $40 million on its own, the largest capital goal UNE has ever had.

“I’m starting on it tomorrow,” Herbert said.

Law school evolution

There’s no doubt the School of Law’s distinctive circular building on Deering Avenue has outlived its usefulness – it’s plagued by water infiltration on almost every floor – but there hasn’t always been agreement on where it should go.

The new dean, former Chief Justice Leigh Saufley, is fully on board with the plan to relocate the school with the business, engineering, and public policy programs of USM in the Maine Center, to be built in the space on Bedford Street between the Wishcamper Center and the Glickman and Osher libraries.

“I really believe that the future of law school education is focused on a cross-disciplinary approach into fields that have broadened dramatically,” Saufley said. “How do we approach science, medicine, engineering, and technology? We have to learn a whole new approach after the pandemic. How can we protect our species in the future?”

Lawyers are as likely to serve in business and other organizations as in law offices, Saufley said. The law school plans to expand its specialties, including the Ocean and Coastal Program, privacy law, and the fledgling Arctic program, with connections to the other professional programs. In addition to the traditional JD, it plans a master’s program that is of particular interest to business executives.

Saufley (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

The law school, up to recently, has endured a decade of under-funding and has been reestablished as an independent program, with Saufley reporting directly to Chancellor Dannel Malloy. “The faculty has been doing some amazing things on a shoestring,” Saulfey said.

She’s looking forward to the benefits of a renewed commitment, both for in-person classes and the new distance learning that was suddenly forced upon all educational institutions last March.

Plans for the building “have changed dramatically” over the past year, Saufley said, though there’s no doubt the space will be needed.

“There’s no substitute for the mentoring that goes on between students, as well as faculty,” she said. “We’re all hungry for human contact.”   

Roux debut

The Roux Institute is opening this fall with 76 students in rented space at the WEX headquarters on Fore Street. It’s similar in design to Northeastern University’s satellite campuses in Charlotte, Seattle, and San Francisco, which have expanded its footprint in advanced research to high-tech centers here and in Canada.

Begun with the $100 million gift from David and Barbara Roux, the Portland campus is expected to expand to 2,000 students, with the help of the equal $100 million pledge from Alfond. Powell said Northeastern’s collaborative approach, involving many Maine institutions, including UMaine, UNE, Colby College, Bates College, and Bowdoin College fits perfectly with the foundation’s mission.

Using the “great resources of Northeastern, teaming up with business from all over the country” will give Maine a jumpstart toward “using education to solve business problems,” Powell said. Seen together, the grants can provide “an academic umbrella,” he said, that breaks down barriers between learning and its applications in the wider world.

But David Flanagan, an Alfond Foundation board member, sounds a cautionary note.

Flanagan presided over the downsizing of many programs during a stint as USM president from 2014-2015. The decline in college-aged students, combined with the ravages of the pandemic, has left many colleges and professional schools vulnerable, he said.

“It’s change or shrivel,” Flanagan said. “… All these institutions have to make it a major mission to reduce fixed costs, and differentiate the education it can provide. It needs to be affordable and accessible, and focus on doing things that work.”

Douglas Rooks has covered Maine issues for 35 years as a reporter, editorial writer, columnist, and former editor of Maine Times.

A rendering illustrates the planned location of the USM Graduate and Professional Center, on Bedford Street in Portland between the Wishcamper Center and the university libraries. (Courtesy USM)

Alfond Foundation 2020 grants at a glance

• University of Maine System, $240 million:

· Graduate and Professional Center, USM, building and scholarships, $55 million.

· College of Engineering, Computing and Information Science, UM led, $75 million.

· Student success and retention, $20 million.

· UMaine athletic programs, $90 million.

• Roux Institute, Northeastern University, $100 million.

• University of New England, College of Medicine, $30 million.

• Thomas College, capital campaign, $13.5 million.

• Colby College, athletic center, $80 million.

• Waterville Creates, downtown redevelopment, $21 million.

• Jackson Laboratory, Cancer Genomics Initiative, $11.9 million.

• FocusMaine, economic growth, $5.2 million.

— Douglas Rooks

A brief history of Alfond grants

In 2010, the Alfond Foundation disbursed $10 million in grants. Ten years later, that amount had grown to $47 million – a figure that will have to increase still further to keep the $500 million in commitments announced in October.

Board Chairman Greg Powell said the foundation has no intention of depleting its capital: “We intend to stay in business for a long, long time.”

Now 70 years old, the foundation long reflected Harold Alfond’s joy in outdoor activity, and his affection for Waterville, the hometown he adopted after moving to Maine from Massachusetts as a young man. A trip around Maine can hardly avoid coming across a gym, a baseball diamond, or a field house donated by Alfond.

Waterville, too, has benefited enormously over the years and wasn’t left out in the new round. The Alfond athletic center at Colby College will receive an $80 million infusion for a $200 million complex, while another $21 million will support the downtown revival that Colby has been bankrolling for the past decade.

“Harold thought everyone should benefit from being outdoors, and making sure it wasn’t all work,” Powell said.

And sure enough, among the new gifts is $90 million for athletic programs at the University of Maine, the state’s only Division 1 school. Chancellor Dannel Malloy said the funding is particularly welcome because it will allow teams to remain competitive, and also create true equity for women’s programs, which have often lagged behind those for men.

In other respects, the new grants represent a substantial broadening of the foundation’s focus to intersect squarely with Maine’s status as a low-income state in a high-income region. The sudden unattractiveness of big-city living amid coronavirus has put Maine on the map, in terms of relocation and expansion, Malloy said.

This can only happen, he said, with major investments in education, with the Alfond grants helping to lead the way. Opportunities like this don’t come along very often, he added.

“Higher education drives economic development,” Malloy said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.”  

— Douglas Rooks

Harold Alfond, left, with wife Dorothy “Bibby” Levine Alfond. (Courtesy Harold Alfond Foundation)

‘Doubling down on the future of Maine’

There’s no doubt Harold Alfond knew how to make an impression.

From the early days, when he created and sold his first shoe company for $1.1 million by the age of 30, to his sale of Dexter Shoe to Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway in 1993, Alfond acquired a reputation as a canny businessman – but also one who was abundantly generous to his hometown of Waterville, and later, to the entire state of Maine.

Born in 1914, Alfond led a long and eventful life, and, in retirement, turned his full energies to the philanthropic ventures that he and his wife, Bibby, launched in 1950. The Harold Alfond Foundation is the oldest and still the largest private foundation in Maine, with assets topping $900 million.

Shortly before his death in 2007 at age 93, Alfond put the finishing touches on his plan to create a $500 college scholarship account for every baby born in Maine. It was his first major educational venture outside the athletic programs that were originally the mainstay of the foundation, and some $170 million is now available to 112,000 young Mainers.

Alfond undoubtedly would have been pleased by the dramatic Oct. 6 announcement that the foundation is committing $500 million in grants to Maine educational institutions over the next few years, nearly half going to the University of Maine System. It was the largest commitment ever to a New England public institution, and the eighth largest to a university system in the country.

The foundation’s chairman, Greg Powell, said the grants were timed to provide reassurance amid hard times.

“We have invested now to address challenges that preceded the pandemic, but were exacerbated by the pandemic,” Powell said. “We’re doubling down on the future of Maine.”

For the university system, Chancellor Dannel Malloy called it “transformative,” and joked, “I offered to jump out of a cake at the ceremony, but they turned me down.” He called it “a very large vote of confidence by a very well-respected foundation.”

All of the eight organizations included in the $500 million have longstanding relationships with Alfond and have successfully passed some demanding tests that go along with the grants.

The foundation doesn’t just dole out money; grants come with deadlines and performance standards. The Graduate and Professional Center at USM earlier received $7.5 million to develop programs, but there are a lot of hoops, according to Theresa Sutton, its director: “I feel like we’re earning it $1 million at a time.”

This is all by design, said Central Maine Power Co. Executive Chairman David Flanagan, who served on the board for six years. About half the board are family members, including Harold’s three sons Teddy, Bill and Peter, and a nephew, Peter Lunder, who is a benefactor of the Colby College Museum of Art.

As an outside director, Flanagan has been able to observe the family dynamics. “I like to say that these are all extremely savvy businessmen who are disguised as a charitable foundation,” he said.

Alfond’s passion for sports, Flanagan said, influenced his belief that business is all about teamwork, and especially about family. They met only a few times, but a memorable occasion was when Alfond visited a children’s center in Augusta that Flanagan and his wife, Kay, were helping to launch.

“The first thing he wanted to know was whether we charged anything, and we said no; it was all covered by the state or insurance,” Flanagan recalled. “The second thing was ‘Are you putting your own money into this?’”

Only after hearing the answer was “yes” did Alfond decide to contribute. “He always believed in people putting their money where their mouth is,” Flanagan said.

Powell agreed. “Harold believed that there’s nothing like being a member of a team,” he said, “and being invested in the success of the overall effort.”

The expanded grant-making of Alfond’s final years was made possible by the 1993 sale of Dexter Shoe, but also by the sale of his 20 percent share in the Boston Red Sox when John Henry bought the team in 2002; two Alfond sons acquired Red Sox shares in the same deal.

Alfond always seemed to be one step ahead. Powell thinks the best story about him goes back to his first company.

On his way to the Skowhegan Fair in 1939, Alfond picked up a hitchhiker who told him about a vacant shoe factory in Norridgewock. The fair visit was abandoned; he visited the factory, bought it for $1,000, and launched Norrwock Shoe Co.

By 1944, it was worth 1,000 times as much to the Shoe Corp. of America, which retained Alfond as president for 25 years.

It was partly a sense of duty that prompted Alfond to start Dexter Shoe in 1956; he was approached by former U.S. Sen. and Gov. Owen Brewster, along with U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, who asked him to create shoe manufacturing jobs in Brewster’s hometown.

The connection was ironic; Brewster and Smith were otherwise sworn enemies. Brewster was a devotee of Sen. Joe McCarthy before being ousted in a 1952 Republican primary, and Smith’s famous 1950 “Declaration of Conscience” speech was directed as much against Brewster, then her fellow senator, as it was against McCarthy.

A vacant woolen mill in Dexter was available for $10,000, and Alfond bought it. The enormous success of the Dexter Shoe line was created through innovative direct-to-consumer marketing – the once-ubiquitous factory outlet stores in Maine and around the country. At its peak, Dexter employed 4,000 people.

Buffett used Berkshire Hathaway stock shares to purchase Dexter, then valued at $433 million. He later called it his “most gruesome mistake,” because American-made shoe manufacturing was about to collapse. It was a rare misjudgment, but hardly typical of Buffett, whose private investment company later soared in value. Today, the equivalent Berkshire Hathaway shares that were exchanged for Dexter would be valued at $9 billion.

Buffett’s loss became Maine’s gain, as the Alfond Foundation continues its broad support of public and private institutions.

Alfond’s approach, as he put it himself, was simple: “Whatever you can give you’ve got to give. You’ve got to make your town better, you’ve got to make your state better, you’ve got to make everyone better because they can’t get by on promises.”

— Douglas Rooks

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