DEXTER, Maine — Tonitte Adkins worked for Dexter Shoe Co. in her hometown for 21 years.
For two decades, from the time she graduated from high school, Adkins worked as a cutter at the firm’s flagship factory in Dexter. It’s a job she’d like to have back.
Adkins was one of more than 130 people who came to a job fair held Saturday at the town hall to fill out a survey that asked about their work history in the shoe industry and if they would be interested in working full- or part-time in it again if manufacturing returned to Dexter.
A group of former shoe company executives and public officials met last month to talk about the possibility of reviving a hand-sewing operation in Dexter. A location has not been selected, but the former middle and elementary schools have been discussed as possible factory sites, the Piscataquis Observer reported last week.
Gerry Marshall, a Corinna businessman who owns the former school building, said last month that he has contacted some major shoe manufacturers who are leaning toward adding American-made products to their lines.
Marshall said that manufacturers have been usings 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.”
Saturday’s event was held to determine how many trained shoe workers still live in the area and how many are interested in working again making shoes, Dick Hall, former vice president for manufacturing for Dexter Shoe, said. Hall is a member of a local committee formed to work on bringing shoe manufacturing back to town. Most members, like Hall, have a connection to the firm.
“The whole idea is to put people back to work in Dexter,” Hall said Saturday. “[Dexter Shoe] had plenty of work for just about anyone who wanted to work in the area. Now that Dexter’s gone, the town’s pretty much gone downhill. We’ve lost a lot of population over the last 12 years. The idea is to take advantage of the skills that were developed over the years and to try to get people back to work.”
Hall’s perception is not backed up by data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau. The town had 3,895 resident in 2010, five more than lived in Dexter in 2000.
Dexter Shoe, which once employed more than 800 people in the region, closed at the end of 2001. Adkins, who now works at Hardwood Products in Guilford, was one of the people who lost her job.
“I’m here in hopes of getting a job closer to home,” Adkins said. “I’d like to be able to go back to what I used to do. I like cutting. I would place the metal dies on the leather. I’ve cut uppers, linings, soles and foam.”
A Maine Department of Labor study, c ited in a 2006 Bangor Daily News story, said that 822 people, most of whom were 35 to 54 years old, lost their jobs when the company closed its plants in Newport, Milo and Dexter. Of those, about 450 were principal wage earners.
Five years later, 656 of those workers found re-employment elsewhere in the state, the majority of which were in the fields of office and administrative support, health care and transportation, according to the study.
That same study revealed it took some seven months for the average employee to find replacement work. When work was found, the overall average quarterly wages were lower than before the layoffs.
“ Dexter needs economic development, more industries, job opportunities, just growth,” Town Manager Shelley Watson said Saturday. “Filling Main Street with businesses would be lovely as well.”