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Shoemaking Goes Out of Style in a Maine Town

Bass Shoe heads for cheaper labor in Caribbean; Wilton looks for new industry.

By David R. FrancisStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 15, 1998


Edith Nightingale has spent most of her adult working life - 35 years - at the G.H. Bass & Co. shoe factory as a leather cutter.

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Next week, she will be laid off.

Getting pink slipped is not an unusual occurrence in the recent history of the American workplace as industry after industry has "downsized" and merged.

But for many in this blue-collar town, Bass is more than just another factory closing. It has been a fixture of the Wilton community for 122 years. Its history is the history of Maine and even the nation. Folks here proudly recount, for example, that Charles Lindbergh completed the first trans-Atlantic flight wearing Bass aviation boots, and how the Weejun loafers, introduced in 1936, became the footwear of choice among students in the 1960s.

But the company founded here by George Henry Bass in 1876 is moving its production of dress shoes, boots, and loafers from western Maine to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic in search of cheaper labor.

"It's real sad," says Mrs. Nightingale of the closing and the loss of 350 jobs.

But town manager Richard Davis is looking to the bright side, hoping that the publicity the layoff has brought will enable this town of 3,900 people to attract new businesses and new jobs.

"We hope to diversify," he says.

Phillips-Van Heusen Corp., the parent company of Bass, has offered to sell its four-story plant to the town for a penny - if it has a business plan for its development. The old brick mill is in the dilapidated downtown area at the edge of Wilson Stream; its water flow once provided electricity for Bass shoemaking machinery.

Town selectmen decided not to take up the offer, but have agreed to work with the chamber of commerce in reviving an existing development corporation to rehab the 48,000 square feet of space.

Mr. Davis says there are already nibbles from new businesses - one has the potential of creating 200 new jobs.

Tom McBrierty, state commissioner for economic development, says there's interest from a telemarketing firm. But "nothing is breaking right now," he notes.

A mill conversion "will take a lot of perseverance to see it through," cautions Robert Thompson, executive director of the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments. "It could be simple. It could be intricate."

Meanwhile, Nightingale is getting used to the unwelcome prospect of early retirement. But her daughter, sister-in-law, niece, and nephew - all being let go by Bass - will have to find new jobs.

Nightingale hopes they will take advantage first of the education and training programs they are eligible for under the North American Free Trade Agreement and other laws because their jobs - averaging $8 hour - are headed for the Caribbean.

Turning a profit

"We resisted having to take this step for several years," says Gus Weill, a spokesman for Phillips-Van Heusen. "But the pressure from foreign shoe imports became too much to bear. These things are always very difficult to do - especially because of the history of the facility."

Mr. Weill wouldn't provide detail on cost differences for production abroad versus in Wilton, other than to say, "The disparity is substantial."