On Oct. 19, as much of the college sports world was dealing with COVID-related budget cuts, the Colby College women’s basketball team was practicing in its brand new 25,000-square-foot arena. Across the hall, the school’s swim teams were using their new aquatics center. Upstairs the squash teams practiced across nine new championship courts.
All 32 varsity programs, in fact, were either practicing, training or working out in the same building, a luxury afforded by the school’s new $200 million Harold Alfond Athletics and Recreation Center, which was funded entirely through donations and finished in the midst of the pandemic.
It’s a building that college president David Greene says will “transform” an athletic department that aspires to be the most dominant in Division III.
“This building is the best in its class, the best in the country of its kind,” Greene said in an interview. “And it gives us an extraordinary advantage for what will be, I think, decades, given that there aren’t many places that are going to do something similar in the [next] 10 years, or 20 years.”
As some of college sports’ biggest programs went into COVID-inspired austerity in 2020—eliminating programs, furloughing staffers and pausing capital projects—Colby did the opposite. The private liberal arts college in Maine checked the final boxes on the three-floor, 354,000-square-foot facility, which will house not only the school’s varsity programs but also its intramurals and school-wide gym.
While some may question whether that $200 million would’ve been needed elsewhere during the last 18 months, Greene said the school is coming out of the pandemic better than most. Colby has an annual budget of $225 million, and despite spending about $10 million on various COVID-19 mitigation efforts (about half on testing), it will end the fiscal year with a $2 million to $5 million surplus. Students never left campus, and Colby had 15,857 applicants for its Class of 2025, the “largest and most competitive” group in its history.
Colby’s athletic department, historically strong in skiing, lacrosse and ice hockey, has a budget of roughly $8.5 million, half the size of the smallest FBS school. The word “small” is actually in the name of the Mules’ conference, the NESCAC, and while there are no “revenue-generating” sports at Colby, athletics play a valuable role in bringing a diverse set of tuition-paying students to Waterville, a former mill town about 75 miles north of Portland.
“The mere fact of a $200 million facility dedicated to athletics and recreation, at a school of this size, is proof to people that we actually are serious about athletics and the importance it has in our education,” athletic director Mike Wisecup said in an interview. “We're putting our money where our mouth is.”
The building will feature heavily in Colby’s athletic recruiting, but it will also serve nearly the entire 2,000-student population. This winter, the school estimates that 50% of the student body used the facility daily, and that 90% will use it over the course of a full year.
The financial benefits are more than just the auxiliary boost to recruiting and campus life. The building has made Colby and Waterville a more viable candidate for hosting NCAA championships and other national-level sporting events. The school now has the only Olympic-sized Myrtha swimming pool in Maine (and one of just a few on the East Coast, outside of Florida), and has already received inbound calls from the Maine Sports Commission for events like synchronized swimming regional tournaments.
“We're putting our money where our mouth is," athletic director Mike Wisecup said.
In May, Colby hosted part of the NCAA Division III women’s lacrosse tournament—two consecutive weekends with roughly 700 athletes and coaches using its facilities. Those events bring national exposure for the campus, the potential for ticket and concessions revenue, and also bring in small fees from the NCAA itself (the lacrosse event paid about $28,000).
“When it all comes out, we’ll have made about $10,000 on that tournament that we can apply to other needs within the department,” Wisecup said. “Had we been able to sell tickets, that would have been additionally helpful, but this year with COVID restrictions we were not able to do that.”
Greene took over as president in 2014 and said he quickly learned that many of the school’s athletics facilities dated back to the 1960s. The main building was held up by a repurposed WWII airplane hangar; the pool was too small; the track was 220 yards instead of the preferred 200 meters. The list of deferred maintenance needs was long.
The school, he determined, had two choices. It could take the route more common in Division III sports and slowly begin raising money for one-by-one renovations for all 32 teams, a course that might take 15 years and would cost around $275 million.
Or it could raise a huge chunk of money and do it all at once. That plan was more ambitious, faster, and in the end, less expensive.
“So it was better obviously from a cost-savings perspective, but also for quality and lack of disruption,” Greene said. “The idea that for the next 10 or 15 years, every student who came to Colby was going to be in a construction zone in the athletic facilities was also not appealing.”
— Colby Athletics (@themules) August 31, 2020
The money came from across the Colby community. The Harold Alfond Foundation, which furthers the philanthropic legacy of the Maine entrepreneur who gave his first major donation to Colby in 1955, provided the lead gift of $90 million. An $8.3 million grant from trustee Jim Crook and his wife Andrea named the building’s basketball arena, and multimillion-dollar gifts from trustees Jack O’Neil and Tim O’Donnell named the ice rink and arena.
The college broke ground on the facility in 2017, and despite supply chain complications due to then-President Donald Trump’s trade war with China, finished in October on time and on budget. Greene said that given increased costs of lumber, materials and labor because of the pandemic, a delay could have cost the school another $20 million to $30 million.
The facility has already helped lure a handful of transfers from Division I, Wisecup said. Which raises the question: When a Division III school builds a Division I-caliber facility, does it foreshadow a jump to the NCAA’s top tier?
“I would not say that’s where my head is right now,” Wisecup said. “Right now I want to do the best with what we have, and become the most competitive Division III program in the country. I don’t want to get ahead of my skis and start to look too far down the road.”
(This story was updated to correct the spelling of Jim Crook's name.)