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Commerce Department official tours New Balance facility in Skowhegan

Alex Barber | BDN
Alex Barber | BDN
Paul Piquado (left), Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Import Administration, accepts a pair of shoes from New Balance Skowhegan plant manager Patrick Welch during a tour of New Balance's Skowhegan facility on Thursday, June 7, 2012.
By Alex Barber, BDN Staff

SKOWHEGAN, Maine — U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Import Administration Paul Piquado toured Skowhegan’s New Balance manufacturing facility on Thursday.

Matthew LeBretton, New Balance director of public affairs, said he hoped the visit would help convince the government that manufacturing jobs could be affected by a pending free trade agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

“So much of that is talked about as numbers on a spreadsheet,” LeBretton said. “New Balance is people, family and jobs behind those numbers.”

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a free trade agreement among several Pacific nations. The United States is still in negotiations to become a part of the agreement. Only Brunei, Chile, Peru and Singapore have signed on.

“It’s good to see a member of the president’s administration come and visit and see why these jobs should remain in the U.S.,” LeBretton said.

Piquado, who oversees the office of textiles and apparel, walked through the facility and viewed the various stages of sneaker production.

Plant manager Patrick Welch led the tour.

“There were 30,000 footwear jobs in the state of Maine in the 1960s,” Welch said during the tour. “Now there are around 1,000 in Maine. Most are employed by New Balance.”

New Balance also has a factory in Norridgewock. About 700 people are employed by the two facilities, LeBretton said.

“We’ve added 64 jobs in Skowhegan and Norridgewock since January,” he said.

Welch presented Piquado with a pair of New Balance sneakers, embroidered with his title.

“This is fantastic. Thank you,” said Piquado. “I have a pair of New Balance [shoes] that are on their last legs. I’ve had them for about five years. I put good wear on them because I do triathlons and things like that.”

“That’s a problem with our our product — they last too long,” Welch said.

LeBretton said Piquado can’t accept gifts, so he bought them.

“We made a sale on the floor,” LeBretton said.

Welch told Piquado that New Balance is important to small U.S. businesses because it strives to be a “Made in the U.S.A.” product.

“We have 37 small businesses that go into making these shoes, representing about 6,000 jobs outside [of New Balance],” Welch said.

He added that for a product to carry a “Made in the U.S.A” logo, it must have at least 70 percent of its contents come from within the country.

“We strive to be in the 80-85 percent range,” LeBretton said.

The soles are the only part of the sneakers not to come from this country, Welch said.

“We’re here to show [Piquado] that despite everyone else in the industry [having] left the country, we’re still making a go of it,” LeBretton said. “The government has the ability to make a decision. They have the ability to negatively impact these jobs and the people in our factories. On the flip side of that, if they make the right decision, it will keep many people in good jobs.”

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