DEXTER, Maine — It has been 12 years since the last footwear came off the assembly line at Dexter Shoe, where more than 750 people were once employed, some for more than 35 years.
Foreign competition was cited as the major reason for Dexter Shoe following other manufacturers in Maine and shutting down its local plant.
The factory on Railroad Avenue is now a warehouse for H.H. Brown, the parent company of Dexter Shoe; and the former warehouse and retail store is owned by John Chappell, who opened the Watering Hole tavern and indoor horseshoe pit in part of the building a few years ago.
But Gerry Marshall, who owns the former Dexter elementary and junior high school buildings and Abbott Hill Apartments, feels that the time is ripe for a rebirth of domestic shoe production, especially hand-sewn models.
“If we don’t act now, all the institutional knowledge and skills of these folks will be gone,” Marshall said. “I think there’s a market for quality footwear and we’ve got the workforce to not only make them, but to teach younger people the trade.”
Jim Costedio was the controller for the retail division of Dexter Shoe and the import-export manager for the company during the last five years it was in business. He is also optimistic that the time is ripe for a rebirth of the shoe industry in Maine.
“We’ve done quite a bit of research into the whole idea of bringing manufacturing back to the area,” Costedio said. “As Gerry pointed out, we wanted to tackle this while we still have an experienced labor force. You not only have former shoe workers in Dexter, but many from towns within a 20-mile radius.” Dexter Shoe also had factories in Milo, Skowhegan and Newport.
Costedio said that a group of former shoe factory executives, elected officials and business owners have met recently, and all agreed that the venture is worth pursuing.
“The most important thing is that Dexter needs a shot in the arm,” Costedio said. “With the experienced workforce, it’s a natural fit. Shoe manufacturing is slowly trickling back into America, largely because the business climate in China is changing. It isn’t the same as it was 20 years ago. It’s not as cost-effective as it used to be.”
Bob Taylor was leather room supervisor for 40 years at Dexter Shoe, but left the company a few times to pursue other interests. “During the years I was gone, I was often told how good Dexter Shoe’s reputation was,” Taylor said.
Like Marshall and Costedio, Taylor said that the shoe industry is gradually returning to its American roots. “I’ve traveled to China, India, South America and places like that,” Taylor said. “It’s no longer inexpensive to do business in China because of increased labor costs. So manufacturers are going into areas like Vietnam. But in many cases, there aren’t any qualified Americans to oversee the operations.”
Taylor said that Walmart is backing a shoe factory in Georgia by guaranteeing that they’ll purchase 15 percent of their inventory. “A Chinese woman, Loretta Lee, is opening up an injection molding operation in Knoxville, Tenn.,” Taylor said. “The term ‘Made in America’ is going to be big in 2014.”
Taylor added that at one time, Dexter Shoe had 250 hand-sewers “under one roof — more than any other factory in the world. So they’re still out there. They may not want to work full-time, but they have the skills and can teach them to others.”
Costedio said that Rep. Paul Davis has contacted the Maine Department of Community and Economic Development, and an official from the agency plans to meet with the backers of the shoe factory venture on Thursday, Dec. 26. “[State Rep.] Ray Wallace has also been very helpful. He also worked for Dexter Shoe,” Costedio said. “Hopefully, the state agency can give us an idea of what’s available for funding and help us with our business plan.”
Costedio added that the immediate goal is to “partner with an existing company to get our foot in the door; and if we can prove that we’re a viable shoemaker, we can make it work.”