DEXTER, Maine — When a group of former shoe company executives and public officials met earlier this month to discuss reviving a hand-sewing operation in Dexter, several questions came up.
How many former Dexter Shoe workers are still left in the area? The Dexter Shoe factory, which once employed more than 750, closed in 2001.
How many former employees would be interested in working for the new venture, even part-time?
Would some of the retired shoe workers be willing to donate their time to train entry-level employees in manufacturing techniques, such as hand sewing?
The answers to most of these queries will probably be revealed soon. The group will host a job fair on 9 a.m.-noon Saturday, Jan. 4, at the Dexter town council chambers.
Brian Whitney from the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development attended a follow-up meeting on Dec. 28 at the Dexter Club to outline what the state and federal government can do to assist the start-up operation.
Gerry Marshall, a Corinna businessman who owns the former Dexter middle and elementary school buildings, said that he has contacted some major shoe manufacturers who are leaning toward adding American-made products to their line.
“I feel the time is now,” said Marshall. “We’re still in the research mode, but the response I’ve been getting has been amazing.”
Marshall said that manufacturers have been using subcontractors from China, Bangladesh and other foreign countries for years “but that’s changing. We can be one of these producers — maybe on a small scale at first, but I feel it can be done.”
Whitney said that out-of-state footwear companies have contacted his office “that are aware of Maine’s reputation in the shoemaking industry and who have asked about our workforce and availability … so it’s great to know you guys can hit the ground running if we have a prospect.”
Whitney said that American shoes “have such a good reputation today that Asia is one of our primary markets. A lot of our shoes made here are now going over there.”
The DECD official outlined some of the ways that the state can help with the operation, but noted that the scenario is “rather unorthodox. You have a workforce, but you don’t really have a product,” Whitney said.
He suggested that the group develop a more comprehensive business plan, and said the Maine Small Business Development Center and Small Business Association can assist them at no charge.
Financing can be obtained through the Finance Authority of Maine, Coastal Enterprises Inc., the Maine Rural Development Program or the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Jim Costedio, who was the controller and import-export manager for Dexter Shoe, said that obtaining a local “inventory” of the workforce was important. “At this point, we’re not really comfortable starting a product from scratch,” Costedio said. “So we’d like to get on board with an existing company with an established product that needs production.”
Alisha Ames, who manages her husband’s chiropractic office in Corinna, said that a business plan “doesn’t necessarily need to have a product. We have to write a business plan based on a service for another entity … A business plan is always a work in progress. It’s always open for negotiations and subject to change.”
Retired teacher John Parola said that hosting an open house or job fair was the best idea to determine the level of interest in the community.
“People can come in, fill out a survey and what type of wages are expected, and we can go from there,” Parola said.
Marshall agreed. “We also have to be flexible. There are a lot of stay-at-home moms out there who only want to work three or four hours a day. So that’s something we can promote. We have to get away from the old shoe shop mentality of a 7-to-3 workday.”
Once the job fair is completed, the group plans to hold a follow-up meeting in mid-January.
In the meantime, Ames, Parola, former state Rep. Jim Tobin and Costedio have volunteered to work on the organization’s business plan.