Many successes and some admitted failures mark the 25-year legacy of Elizabeth Noyce’s giving.

The pleas arrive seemingly nonstop, hundreds each year seeking money to build, teach, explore, invest, recreate and renovate. And here, in an office overlooking Portland’s waterfront, a group of four people will weigh each one.

Their job: giving away the income of the Libra Foundation’s microchip fortune.

The four members of Libra’s board — President and CEO Craig Denekas, former TD Bank Chairman William Ryan, attorney Owen Wells and Dr. Pendred “Penny” Noyce — usually say no. However, about 50 times each year they say yes.

And money, lots of it, follows.

Since 1989, Libra Foundation initiatives created the Portland Public Market and the Maine Winter Sports Center. They sent thousands of Maine children to summer camps. They funded the rebirth of both the Black Mountain Ski Resort in Rumford and New Gloucester’s Pineland Center.

Each of those initiatives cost millions of dollars.

At Pineland, the purchase, renovation and expansion of the campus cost $110 million. Many more millions have been used for smaller grants, some less than $1,000, to organizations across the state: schools, hospitals, museums, theaters, food banks and environmental groups. And more are given out every year.

“There are so many good programs we could be responsive to,” Denekas said. “Unfortunately, we can only be responsive to a fraction of a slice. And that’s the frustrating part.”

There’s also some frustration that goes with saying no after years of saying yes.

Libra drew attention recently after it announced that it would end funding in April to the Maine Winter Sports Center, a nonprofit group created to oversee several community-run ski areas in Maine. About $34 million was spent on projects, including the 10th Mountain Center in Fort Kent, the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle and, until last year, Black Mountain Ski Area in Rumford. The two centers in northern Maine are world-class facilities that have drawn their share of Olympians.

The center kicked off a fundraising effort in February to begin replacing the Libra support, which totaled $1.37 million in 2013.

“We’re completely focused on fundraising and being able to open for business next year,” said Andy Shepard, the center’s director. He’s secured a $100,000 gift and another $400,000 from a single donor if he can find $400,000 more to match it.

“If we’re able to fully meet this matching grant, that gives us the funding we need to continue next year,” he said.

Shepard’s not bitter about Libra ending its support, he said. 

“The reality is that Libra Foundation has a lot of priorities around the state and feel it’s time to focus on those priorities,” he said. “Maine Winter Sports Center would not exist were it not for the support we’ve received over the years from the Libra Foundation.”

To Libra’s president, the move was one of necessity.

“We stay committed for a significant amount of time,” Denekas said, talking about the ski center and other projects. “There comes a time when Libra will turn over. We have that track record.”

And there’s so much more to do, he said.

Applications: The fancy and the simple

As the Libra Foundation enters its 25th year, it remains a quiet but powerful financial force in the state. While the organization didn’t have a figure for total spending on projects and donations since 1989, spending exceeded $200 million for its five biggest targets: the Portland Market, Pineland, the Maine Winter Sports Center, the summer camp project and a statewide reading program called Raising Readers.

The foundation maintains six direct staff, including Denekas, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Jere Michelson and Vice President Erik Hayward, who oversee the sprawling Pineland campus.

They and the board try to keep things as simple as possible, despite managing one of the state’s biggest fortunes.

The foundation was created by Elizabeth Noyce, the first wife of Robert Noyce, a founder of Intel and Fairchild Semiconductor and one of the inventors of the microchip. (The Noyces are the parents of board member Penny Noyce.)

Though Elizabeth Noyce was born in Massachusetts, she settled in Maine after her divorce in 1975 and became a benefactor to her adopted home.

“The whole thrust from Libra comes directly from Betty, and her great love was the state of Maine,” Denekas said. “Our directive as a foundation is to do good works within the state of Maine.”

Before her death in 1996, Noyce led her foundation to fund projects including construction at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, a mid-1990s renovation of the Cumberland County Civic Center and the purchase of the Nissen bakery in Portland.

Denekas, a lawyer, worked on the Nissen deal. He joined the foundation as a vice president in 2001 and succeeded founding Libra President Owen Wells in 2011.

As CEO and president, Denekas earns $265,000 a year. With it comes the responsibility of overseeing total assets estimated at $140 million, according to the foundation’s financial statements.

That money is kept in a variety of places, invested in real estate and in the foundation’s own strategic creations, such as Pineland Farms foods. Typically, the foundation’s annual grants and other aid exceeds 5 percent of its assets, Denekas said. Meanwhile, enterprises such as the food businesses or office rentals are generating revenue to ease the bottom line.

Under Denekas, the foundation has tried to stay simple, despite its wealth.

That simplicity includes the pleas it receives for money.

Some requests arrive in professionally bound and illustrated packages, the product of grant writers and designers. Others arrive printed out on the brief two-page form posted on the foundation’s website.

“You can fill it out by hand,” said Denekas, a soft-spoken Michigan native. “You can fill it out in pencil if you like.”

In most cases, if a plea is fulfilled it’s a one-shot deal. Libra warns applicants that most grants are never repeated.

For an organization to be eligible, it must be an IRS-recognized nonprofit with a board of directors. It must also help people in Maine.

“Just tell us in your own words what your project hopes to do,” Denekas said. “We see start-ups, after-school programs, teen programs, projects for parks and community programs for recreation centers and for pools.”

Denekas and the other board members meet four times a year to decide which ideas to fund. Those that are accepted are notified and sent a check.

Such spending is only a portion of Libra’s work, though.

Some groups, such as the Maine State Music Theater and the Maine Maritime Museum, get annual donations as a matter of course. In 2013, the Brunswick theater was given $2,500 and the Bath museum was given $4,000.

“They don’t have to apply,” Denekas said. “We just give money to them because they’re doing good in Maine.” A full listing of the foundation’s grants is on its website, librafoundation.org.

In 2005, the foundation created the Libra Future Fund, which makes grants to young businesspeople. The nonprofit requirement is waived.

Grants are typically for $5,000 or $10,000, Denekas said.

In 2012, the fund gave money to a Gorham bath and body products company, a legal resources firm and an online radio company in Alfred. In 2013, a grant went to First Choice Firewood in Gray, which is working on a new processor to cut and split firewood.

The money isn’t meant to start businesses, Denekas said. It’s meant to give young entrepreneurs a hand.

“Applicants might be about to hire somebody and need a new computer,” he said. “They might get a little foothold and turn into something bigger.”

Not being afraid to fail

On the other side of the scale are some of Libra’s own initiatives.

The Portland Public Market, the summer camp program, the Maine Winter Sports Center, Pineland and Raising Readers are some of the biggest — all created by Libra and leaning heavily upon its wealth.

Funneling its money through MaineHealth, Raising Readers gives all Maine children books. The statewide program begins at birth and children receive more books at every checkup until age 5.

So far, the program has given away more than 2 million books and exists because of Libra’s funding, which has totaled $14.3 million since it began in 2001.

“That’s a program that can’t have sustainability,” Denekas said. “We fund it. If we don’t fund it, it’s not going to have funding.” There are no plans to end the project, he said.

Other programs and investments have abruptly ended after Libra pulled its funding.

The Portland Public Market cost $12 million between 1999 and 2006. Grants related to the TOPS (The Opportunity to Shine) Summer Camps program and disbursed through United Ways in Bangor, Portland and Lewiston cost $28.4 million between 2000 and 2013. Neither exist anymore.

Denekas and Michelson both consider the camp program a qualified success. It gave thousands of children experiences they might not have had otherwise and it eased some of the summer’s financial burdens on their families.

But it was unsustainable. Many camps were created to capitalize on the millions of dollars awarded to elementary school kids across the three cities. Some camps were more extravagant — transporting kids to amusement parks and water slides — and felt less like traditional Maine summer camps, Denekas said.

In the end, the money was needed more elsewhere, Michelson said.

The Portland Public Market was meant to be an investment that would eventually pay for itself, but it closed after seven years, never drawing the needed crowds.

“It didn’t work ultimately as a public market,” Denekas said. “This goes in the category of ‘You have to be unafraid to fail.’ You don’t want to fail. You do your level best not to fail.”

In some ways, the idea was just a little early.

“In the end, you took a shot at something and you thought it through and you built a good building with good parking, and there are good things that flowed from that,” he said.

When Libra put the market up for sale, one of the prospective buyers was Whole Foods, which eventually built its successful store a few blocks away. Trader Joe’s followed.

“The private sector did better,” Denekas said.

But it taught Libra lessons it has put to use at Pineland. (See related story.)

Development at the massive New Gloucester campus is expected to continue, serving as a destination for eco-tourists wishing to visit operating farms and a high-tech office complex.

“It was less than nothing and now it’s an attractive business address,” Denekas said, acknowledging the center will continue to be one of Libra’s primary projects. “We’re very much involved in what I call ‘the intersection of business and philanthropy.’”
 
Giving away a mountain
 
It’s the kind of transformation Denekas believes is complete at Black Mountain in Rumford.

Mostly through the Maine Winter Sports Center, Libra spent about $6 million dollars at the ski area. Money paid for a chairlift to replace on old T-bar system, parking lots and a new lodge.

“What we are trying to do is enable communities to have an asset, to get it to the point where they were empowered to step into it,” Denekas said.

Last year, Libra gave the mountain to the community. It’s run by a board of directors.

“The Libra Foundation gave us an incredible gift,” said Roger Arsenault, who belongs to the board. The ski area might not exist without the help, he said.

“We just can’t fail,” he said.

This season, Black Mountain has operated the area with inexpensive $15 lift tickets, a strategy meant to draw big crowds.

So far, it’s worked, Arsenault said. But it’s been tough. No one is writing checks to balance the books anymore.

“We don’t have any entitlement,” he said. “There’s no entitlement for Libra to keep on forever. We knew that going in and we knew it when it ended. Obviously, it’s easy street if they keep writing the check.”

Denekas applauded the community for taking over the mountain, with volunteers absorbing the responsibility of running the costly operation.

“They stepped up and did it,” he said. “You have to take some comfort in the fact that yes, there are some difficulties in the process, but there are some good stories, too.”

Denekas preserves a little pride for what the foundation did.

“There were no strings attached,” Denekas said. “We gave them the mountain. Gosh, I wonder if that’s ever happened before.”

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Building a campus from the ruins

When Libra bought the Pineland complex in 2000, it was a wreck.

It had been closed for four years after serving for 86 years as Maine’s center for the care of people with developmental disabilities. It had a dark reputation that seemed mirrored in its 26 buildings, many in disrepair and polluted with asbestos and lead.

Libra bought it for $240,000 and went to work.

The foundation salvaged 19 buildings and spent millions on them. It purchased two adjacent farms. Alongside them, Libra built a creamery and a state-of-the-art greenhouse that grows vegetables using hydroponics. It built New England’s grandest equestrian center, designed and built cross-country ski and hiking trails and transformed many of the buildings into modern offices wired for the latest technology.

The capital expenses alone, not including the operational costs, have totaled $110 million, so far.

The food production at Pineland campus and its related operations — a cattle ranch in Fort Fairfield and a potato farm in Mars Hill — are meant to be catalysts in Maine’s economy.

“What we’re trying to do is accelerate the notion of Maine as a food cluster, the way Hollywood makes movies or Detroit made cars,” said Craig Denekas, the Libra Foundation’s CEO and president.

It’s working so far.

Pineland Farms’ meat, cheese and potatoes are being sold nationally at many supermarkets, including Hannaford, Kroger and Whole Foods. The products are all made without hormones or pesticides.

It’s a kind of success that Libra officials talk little about.

Many people don’t know about the breadth of the production. “We don’t do press releases,” Denekas said, standing recently in a market at the Pineland campus that showcases both its own food and items made by many other Maine producers.

However, the busy farm operations may be obscured by the activity at the rest of the campus.

“We now have 48 tenants with between 800 and 1,000 employees,” Denekas said. There are lawyers and dentists and accountants.

Iberdrola USA, the parent company of Central Maine Power, has its corporate headquarters there. Apple administers its computers-in-the-classroom program for Maine out of offices there. Downeast Pension Services is located there along with Harpswell Capital Advisers, which helps nonprofit groups, including Libra, invest their money.

A drive through the campus, which also includes a YMCA, a cafeteria and a ski shop, gives the impression of a pastoral industrial park. Someone can have a swim, visit with sheep or get their taxes done within a short walk.

The rents and the food production all bring in revenue, but it is not enough to cover the campus’s costs. Denekas acknowledges that Pineland will continue to be one of Libra’s central focuses into the future.

“There’s no end in sight (to the financial commitment),” Denekas said. “But that’s OK.”


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