NORRIDGEWOCK, Maine — As the New Balance shoe company continues to dance around and try to sidestep a social media firestorm brought on by comments one of its officials made about this month’s presidential election, local residents and officials are standing by the firm and hoping the controversy blows over soon.
To illustrate how ingrained the company is in this central Maine town, residents say you can’t throw a rock without hitting someone who works for or knows someone who works for New Balance. If you run into a local who isn’t wearing New Balance sneakers, most will say they have a pair or two waiting at home.
But in the wake of the most contentious election in modern American history, New Balance became the target of a social media backlash after one of its officials welcomed President-elect Donald Trump and criticized President Barack Obama.
In Norridgewock, which has fewer than 3,500 residents, residents, business owners and community officials have come to the defense of the company. They say the controversy is overblown, and they hope it doesn’t hurt the workers who rely on these hard-to-come-by jobs.
“See those hats there?” Harrison York, who has run York’s Market on Main Street for the past 48 years, said Thursday, pointing to a small display of hats on a counter behind the cash register. “Made in China. So was a lot of other stuff in here. We just don’t make much here anymore, but New Balance stuck around.”
On his feet were a pair of well-worn, 2-year-old New Balance sneakers.
“I usually buy New Balance, and most everyone in my family does, too,” York said. “They make good sneakers, and they make them here.”
Off on the wrong foot
During an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Matt LeBretton, New Balance’s vice president of public affairs, said “the Obama administration turned a deaf ear to us and frankly, with President-elect Trump, we feel things are going to move in the right direction.”
He was talking about the Boston-based manufacturer’s criticisms of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a controversial trade deal that New Balance argued would make it more difficult for the company to compete globally. The reporter posted the quote on Twitter but, as it spread around social media, the words quickly shed the Trans-Pacific Partnership context, and some people took the statement as an endorsement of Trump’s entire platform and divisive campaign rhetoric.
New Balance’s relationship with the Obama administration was already strained earlier this year when New Balance says it faced persistent hurdles as it vied for a military contract that it ultimately lost out on. That situation prompted the company to become more vocal about its opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Some Trump opponents fired back on social media, calling for boycotts and videotaping attempts to light New Balance sneakers on fire or flush them down the toilet.
In the midst of the online uproar, New Balance even had to distance itself from a white supremacists group after a neo-Nazi blogger dubbed New Balance “the official shoes of white people” because the company’s “brave act has just made them the official brand of the Trump Revolution.”
In response, the company issued a statement disavowing the unwanted association.
“New Balance does not tolerate bigotry or hate in any form,” the company said. “One of our officials was recently asked to comment on a trade policy that was taken out of context.”
While the social media firestorm has drawn attention across the globe, in Norridgewock, the company’s image appears untainted.
“In Norridgewock we don’t see New Balance as a company, we see them as a member of the community — a positive, proactive presence,” Norridgewock Town Manager Richard LaBelle said Wednesday.
New Balance is a major employer in Maine, with about 900 people on its payroll scattered across a trio of facilities. About 400 employees punch a timecard at the New Balance plant near Norridgewock’s short downtown stretch. Another 332 associates work at another facility in neighboring Skowhegan. The company employs another 170 workers at a manufacturing site in Norway.
The company’s footprint in Maine stretches beyond the towns where its factories are located. In 2011, New Balance gave the University of Maine $5 million to help fund an overhaul of the Orono campus field house and Memorial Gymnasium. In exchange, the university named the field house and its student recreation center after the sneaker company. Politicians from former U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud to current U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin have visited the factories and worn New Balance sneakers on the stump to show their support for the industry.
The company’s continued operations in Maine stand in contrast to the loss of manufacturing jobs in other locales in central and northern Maine, where other shoe companies shut down decades ago and where a series of more recent paper mill closings still sting.
In the early 1980s, New Balance took over the shuttered Norridgewock factory previously run by Norrwock Shoe Co. — a business the late philanthropist Harold Alfond started in 1940 and built into a successful enterprise before selling it four years later.
Today, its employees churn out about 2,500 pairs of shoes each day, according to New Balance Plant Manager Raye Wentworth.
New Balance bills itself as the only major footwear company still producing athletic shoes in the United States — assembling about 4 million pairs per year in the country. It has stressed its made-in-America image at a time when U.S. manufacturing is becoming harder and harder to come by.
LaBelle said New Balance has been a vital contributor to the community. It holds an annual service day in which the factories shut down and employees take the day to work on other projects in the community. The company’s employees have helped build playgrounds, helped in food kitchens, supplied shoes at warming shelters and are planning to fix up a gazebo in the community in the spring, LaBelle said.
“They’re always the first at the table to do what they can to help,” LaBelle said. “Norridgewock wouldn’t be Norridgewock without New Balance.”
New Balance employees around town on their lunch breaks declined to comment for this article, as the company requires media requests to filter through public relations officials.
“Our communities count on us,” Wentworth said. “We pride ourselves on doing good in our communities where we live and work. We don’t just make shoes.”
It’s also unlikely many people in around New Balance’s Maine hubs would take offense to New Balance’s support of Trump or criticisms of the Obama administration. For example, about 58 percent of voters in Somerset County, home to Norridgewock and Skowhegan, favored Trump for the presidency, according to election results.
Gehri Rinaldi lives nearby on Norridgewock’s Main Street. She sells homemade wreaths and holiday decorations out of her house to make some money around the holidays. Her husband is searching for work, she said. She has five sons and 13 grandchildren.
Rinaldi said she thinks the New Balance controversy has been overblown — an overreaction to an opinion expressed by a company official. Calling for boycotts would only serve to hurt the employees at these factories, she argued.
If New Balance were to go away?
“We’d be done,” she said, though she doesn’t believe it will come to that. “If you don’t work in the woods here, or in a mill or in a factory, where do you work?”
Brian Horne, owner of Colburn Shoe Store in downtown Belfast, said he’s carried New Balance for at least the past 35 years. He said the controversy hasn’t been a big topic of conversation in his shop and that New Balance makes a quality shoe that he’ll continue to offer. He likes selling American-made products wherever possible, and those options are harder to come by than ever before.
“I think and hope this will all blow over,” Horne said during a recent interview inside his store during a break between customers. “This election was a hard, emotional event for a lot of people. We might be seeing the effects of that for a while.”
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.