UMaine basketball supporters cry foul as planned Memorial Gym renovations get tied up

ORONO, Maine — A lot of people who care deeply about University of Maine basketball have spent the last several years on a mission.

Their goal is to help the university raise enough money to give the Black Bear men’s and women’s basketball programs an improved venue in which to practice and play their home games.

Their hopes have been dashed, as UMaine officials apparently have given up hope on renovating the beat-up bandbox that is Memorial Gymnasium.

UMaine athletics director Steve Abbott said he has not closed the door on upgrading the gym affectionately known as “The Pit,” but it seems clear that part of the project will be abandoned.

It won’t happen because the cost of trying to fix up the old building will far exceed what UMaine and its benefactors have been able to raise — especially after other needs are addressed.

The thought of backing out of the project has created a firestorm of anger and resentment. Many dedicated people have invested much time and effort trying to generate money and support for the renovations for a new gym.

When the original idea for the renovations to Memorial Gym was first put forth publicly, UMaine officials believed they would need in the neighborhood of $12.5 million to make it happen.

Yet even with an estimated $14 million having been committed toward all the renovations in the field house and the Memorial Gym building, the gym itself likely will remain a practice venue.

Former Gov. John Baldacci was instrumental in gaining Legislative approval of a $7 million state bond slated for improvements to the gym and field house. Those efforts came as a result of Baldacci’s relationship with longtime Black Bear basketball backers, led by former UMaine men’s basketball head coach and player Skip Chappelle.

Abbott helped procure a $5 million gift from Maine athletic shoe manufacturer New Balance toward the project and The Alfond Foundation continued its support of UMaine athletics with a pledge of $2 million in matching funds.

Former UMaine player Dick Collins and his wife Anne promised a $1 million gift, but a source said it won’t be paid until after Dick Collins’ death. The Collinses also generously donated $5 million toward renovations of UMaine’s Collins Center for the Arts.

In retrospect, it appears the upgrades to the gym were doomed from the start because of the complicated and expensive nature of the work.

The most maddening part for the fundraisers is that the project was originally conceptualized and publicized primarily as a basketball facility upgrade. There was a lot of talk about recapturing the atmosphere and energy that had existed in “The Pit” during its heyday in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

According to Abbott, nobody realized what a costly proposition it would be to renovate the gym. Now, the discussion has switched to all the other upgrades that could be undertaken.

Given the scope of the work — some of which needs to be done for health, safety and building code compliance — a lot of the money has been designated for non-basketball upgrades.

The $7 million bond was approved, in large part, for the field house. The main concern was the removal of flooring that contained mercury and the asbestos located in the building.

Abbott said some of the money also is to be used to help bring both the field house and gym buildings up to code in terms of wiring, air circulation, fire alarms and other needs.

The field house price tag alone has risen to approximately $4.5 million, with $2 million from the New Balance gift earmarked for that portion of the project.

Assuming that would leave approximately $10 million, UMaine must determine the best use for the rest of the money.

The locker rooms, offices, training facilities and other spaces inside the gym building — which houses all but three of UMaine’s varsity sports and their coaches — are badly in need of upgrades and those would benefit many Black Bear entities.

Yet by the time those areas have been overhauled, another huge chunk of the original $14 million will be gone.

Basketball boosters are crying foul and insist that having a true home court, where UMaine basketball can practice and play its games, is more important than any or all of the aforementioned “optional” renovations.

A revamped Memorial Gym would provide the Bears with the home-court advantage they have lacked playing the last 20-plus years on a temporary floor atop the ice inside nearby Alfond Arena.

However, in addition to the high cost of re-doing The Pit, plans estimated the seating capacity of the upgraded facility at only 1,700 fans. That would be problematic if another Cindy Blodgett came along to re-captivate the imaginations of Black Bear fans.

Other options could include building a small, stand-alone basketball structure somewhere else on campus or moving home games to the brand-new Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.

While it hasn’t been ruled out, Abbott said the cost of staffing, heating and maintaining a new building would seem to make it cost-prohibitive. However, playing home games in Bangor also would mean added fees for transportation and facility rentals.

It has been a long haul for those who have been raising the money for Memorial Gym renovations. Understandably, they feel cheated to hear that their efforts not only may not produce the kind of on-campus basketball facility toward which they have been working — it may not result in one at all.

With the money already promised, the ball is now in the court of UMaine officials. Unless there were other stipulations outlined when the donations were made, administrators will make the call as to where the money would be best spent.

Given the tenor of the discussions when the project was introduced, the basketball court was among the primary concerns. Now, it is very much in jeopardy.

Regardless, UMaine teams deserve the opportunity to practice and play in a more modern basketball facility. Let’s hope the university finds a way to make that happen.

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About Pete Warner

Pete is a Bangor native who graduated from Bangor High School, Class of 1980. He earned a B.S. in Journalism (Advertising) from the University of Maine in 1986. He has been a full-time member of the Bangor Daily News Sports staff since 1984. Pete lives in Bangor with his wife of 35 years, Annia. They have two adult sons, Will and Paul. Pete is fluent in Spanish and enjoys visiting his in-laws and friends in Costa Rica. His hobbies including hunting, fishing and listening to jazz.