Shoemaking Goes Out of Style in a Maine Town

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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.

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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."

But several sources here say that workers at the Bass plant in Puerto Rico make about $5 an hour and in the Dominican Republic $33 a week.

Closing the plant and consolidating some of its workers will save the company $40 million over the next three years, Van Heusen chairman Bruce Klatsky has told financial analysts.

In Wilton, Bass will maintain a distribution operation at a more modern, one-level plant half a mile from the old mill. It will employ about 150 workers.

Severance packages include a week's pay for each year employed up to 10 years and range to two weeks for those with 20 or more years service.

But it's the ripple effect of the closing that concerns town leaders. The Maine State Planning Office reports a secondary impact of 100 lost jobs from the closing. It says $8 million in personal income and $5 million in retail and service sales will be lost.

In a first draft of a new budget, town manager Davis has plans for "pretty drastic cuts." Bass has provided the town $231,000 in tax revenues, or 7.7 percent of total revenues. Some $105,000 of that is on machinery and equipment that will mostly disappear.

Some city workers retiring will not be replaced, he says. And some public works will be put off.

Finding a job in the area won't be easy. Over the past three years, the towns of Wilton and Farmington, seven miles away, have lost 202 other jobs in the leather and wood products industries.

Unemployment already stands at 7.1 percent of the labor force, far above the national average. It is expected to rise to 9.4 percent when the Bass layoffs are completed this summer.

End of an industry?

The shoe industry has been shrinking in Maine for decades. But some firms survive.

In Farmington, Franklin Shoe plans to hire a few of those laid off by Bass. It produces 100 different styles of dyeable shoes, such as the matched footwear worn by bridesmaids at weddings.

Cole Hahn in nearby Livermore Falls has managed by making high-quality, expensive shoes.

The Dexter Shoe Co. has factories in Dexter, Milo, Skowhegan, and Newport, producing 25,000 shoes a day.

But to Maine Gov. Angus King Jr., shoes and textiles are "sunset industries."

Fifteen years ago, the shoe industry provided 17,000 jobs in Maine, compared with about 5,000 now, says Mr. McBrierty.

"We are really moving toward a new economy and the transition is tough," says the governor's spokesman, Dennis Bailey.

Maine, he notes, has added 25,000 new jobs since 1994, some 11,000 last year.

Many of those laid off, though, are not qualified for new jobs in such areas as biotechnology and medical services.

Local merchants, meanwhile, are preparing for better, or for worse.

Gary Paling, the proprietor of a convenience store, speculates on how his business will survive the cutbacks at the Bass plant.

Perhaps, Mr. Paling says, the remaining workers will be younger and not pack their own lunch. Then they may visit his store for a ham sandwich at $1.60 or a slice of pizza.

But if sales slump, he says, he can lay off two part-time women helpers and work longer himself. He put in 80-hour work weeks several years ago, Paling says.

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